State lawmakers are fast-tracking construction of a new carpool lane on a traffic-clogged stretch of the San Diego Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass.
A bill passed this week by the state Senate would allow a northbound lane to be constructed using the so-called design-build method. All signs indicate that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would support the measure, and the bill could land on his desk as early as today.
"He supports the 405. He supports design-build," said Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger.
Local officials applaud the proposed legislation.
"The mayor was a strong proponent for the bill. He lobbied for it," said Darryl Ryan, a spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who heads the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
The design-build process is intended to allow big projects to run more smoothly and finish faster. By putting a single contractor in charge of design and construction, time can be saved in the bidding process and friction can be minimized.
But critics say combining design with construction could lead to a lack of competitive bidding, because typically only large companies can provide the surety bonds for such big contracts.
"This is something that is pushed by huge engineering and construction companies. They sell it as a way to do projects cheaper and faster. The record does not support that," said Ted Toppin, a spokesman for the Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents 7,000 Caltrans engineers. Toppin cites cost overruns and delays at some projects.
Nonetheless, the engineers union isn't opposed to design-build for the 405 carpool lane, which would run from the 10 Freeway to the 101 Freeway, because the bill contains provisions requiring competitive bidding. Caltrans engineers, rather than private contractors, would conduct safety inspections and other tests, Toppin said.
The bill was necessary because current state law does not authorize the state Department of Transportation to use design-build -- an approach to projects that Schwarzenegger would like to see more often statewide.
Last week, the governor identified the new carpool lane as a project that would receive $350 million under his proposed transportation plan.
Speeding up work on the lane has been important to local officials because the project, which would cost more than half a billion dollars, last year received $130 million in federal funding. The federal funds could be lost if the money isn't used by 2009.
"There's a deadline for encumbering the money," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who introduced SB 1026, which follows the adoption of a similar bill last year by the Assembly.
"This is another step toward moving traffic along the 405 more rapidly," Kuehl said.
Design-build could lead to fewer jobs for state employees, according to Caltrans. For example, the 405 carpool lane project probably would use private consultants during a design-build job, rather than having Caltrans do the work in-house.
Design-build is increasingly used across the nation. In Southern California, the approach has been used on non-Caltrans projects, such as Orange County's California 73 toll road and the newly opened Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley.
"It makes a project go faster," said Michael Turner, government relations manager for the MTA, which is using design-build on the Eastside Gold Line extension, currently under construction.
"The project doesn't have to be fully designed before you start building. You get a huge time savings from that," Turner said.
Caltrans officials say they support design-build and are hopeful that they, too, could adopt the approach for future projects.
"It's a very effective tool, and it's a very good tool," said Doug Failing, director of Caltrans in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
He estimates that it could help shave two to three years off the time it would normally take to complete the 405 lane.
If all goes well, design-build could allow groundbreaking for the carpool lane to begin in early 2009.