U.S. Won't Help Fix Flawed Freeway Welds : Safety: Federal officials fault Caltrans' oversight and refuse funding for Orange Crush problems. State may go after contractor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal highway authorities said Tuesday they are troubled by faulty welds in the Orange Crush interchange and will not reimburse Caltrans for any of the $4 million it will take to repair them.

Caltrans had hoped for some federal money to pay for the repairs, which should begin in December or January and last about a year. Federal officials said they received a verbal request for money from Caltrans, but they quickly said no.

"Caltrans was responsible for administering the contract and providing the proper oversight," said Glenn Clinton, a Federal Highway Administration team leader in Sacramento. "Our view is this work is not up to expectations, and it was approved by Caltrans at the time--but now they're saying they have concerns about it."

The federal government paid more than three-quarters of the $84.7-million cost three years ago of revamping the interchange of the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways. Tests this year found that one in eight welds sampled broke at pressures lower than they were designed to withstand.

To be on the safe side, Caltrans is replacing some 700 welds in the interchange, which was built to survive a 6.5-magnitude earthquake. Caltrans says even though some of the welds are bad, the bridges would not pancake in a Northridge-sized earthquake.

Caltrans plans to pay for the repairs by dipping into its highway maintenance fund.

Although Caltrans has consistently blamed contractors for the shoddy work, federal officials suggest Caltrans should share in the blame.

"Ultimately, Caltrans is responsible for accepting the work," Clinton said.

After the work is completed, Caltrans will decide whether to go after the general contractor in charge of building the Orange Crush interchange, Kiewit Pacific of Omaha, Neb., to recoup some of the money, Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago said. Contractors say Caltrans is to blame.

Meanwhile, state legislators have scheduled two hearings to learn more about the bad welds and Caltrans oversight on construction projects. Members of the Assembly Transportation committee will question Caltrans engineers and others during a 10 a.m. public hearing Oct. 4 at the Santa Ana district headquarters of Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim).

"Obviously, we are paying big bucks to have safe bridges," Correa said Tuesday. "We need to make sure the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. We need to find out if the problems that we're going through are because of lack of oversight by Caltrans, shoddy workmanship, or maybe it's something more than that."

State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) also announced that the Senate Transportation Committee, which is investigating widespread problems in the Caltrans permitting office, will expand to cover the issue of the faulty welds during its Oct. 12 hearing. No location has been set.

"At this point, there appears to be a lot of finger-pointing," Dunn said. "Caltrans says it's the contractors' fault, and the contractors say it's Caltrans."

The state must assure Southern California drivers--and the federal government--that oversight problems have been corrected, bridges are safe and that "we've taken the appropriate steps to make sure this does not happen again," Dunn said.

Federal officials agree.

"We're very concerned," Clinton said. "We're concerned when taxpayers pay for a product and then the quality of work is not up to what we would call acceptable. That's our job--to provide for the safety of the public and stewardship of their funds."

Caltrans said that even though the work is expected to last a year, the agency is still looking for ways to finish more quickly or at least to ease the pain while construction is ongoing.

"If any lane closures would be warranted, it will be at night," said Rose Orem, a Caltrans spokeswoman in Orange County. "We won't have to shut down any of the connectors."

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