Bay Area freeway repair speeds into the fast lane

Times Staff Writers

One day after a tanker truck explosion melted a key Bay Area freeway interchange, the scramble toward recovery raced into high gear Monday in a region crippled 18 years ago by massive freeway collapses during an earthquake.

The nightmare commute that officials had braced for largely failed to materialize, as many workers who normally flood into San Francisco from the East Bay either altered their hours or simply stayed home. But congestion was expected to worsen throughout the week as residents returned to their normal habits.

“By no stretch of the imagination is there anyone who believes that we’re out of the woods,” said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, adding that workday commuters significantly swell the city’s population.


Late Monday the company whose truck exploded apologized for the disruption as published reports surfaced that the driver had a criminal record.

Meanwhile, with a state of emergency in force, the California Department of Transportation pressed forward with round-the-clock demolition at the Oakland disaster scene, which left a steel and concrete overpass draped over the freeway’s lower deck like a surreal Salvador Dali clock.

The 24/7 effort, to be carried out under an emergency $2-million contract, will continue at least until the debris from Interstate 580 can be hauled away and engineers can assess the extent of repairs needed on the damaged stretch of Interstate 880 below it, said Dan McElhinney, a Caltrans chief deputy director.

Since the extent of the damage is unclear, the cost and timeline for repairs are not known, he said, adding that Caltrans engineers have nevertheless begun to design fixes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s emergency declaration allows for an expedited bidding process, and Caltrans representatives have been contacting contractors and steel fabricators throughout the country. Finding customized steel girders for the project probably will not be easy, McElhinney said.

The accident caused two freeway spans of roughly 83 feet each to collapse after the tanker truck hauling 8,600 gallons of fuel overturned and exploded. The destruction severed one artery that carries 45,000 motorists daily from San Francisco to the East Bay, and another that carries 35,000 from Berkeley and Vallejo south toward San Jose.


The interchange, known as the MacArthur Maze, is the most congested in the region, and evening commutes out of San Francisco in the coming weeks or months will prove the greatest challenge.

“The Bay Bridge delivers traffic to the maze, where it separates into three connector ramps,” said Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss. “One of those is gone for the evening commute.... If those people choose to drive, they’ll clog the other connector ramps.”

A California Highway Patrol spokesman said the investigation into the cause of the 3:45 a.m. crash is ongoing, adding that the all-but-incinerated scene could still yield clues.

CHP officials said earlier that it appeared that driver James Mosqueda had been speeding.

A stunned and burned Mosqueda, 51, walked away from the conflagration shortly before the freeway collapsed in an apocalyptic scene reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s movie “The Terminator.”

Mosqueda’s family released a brief statement from San Francisco’s St. Francis Memorial Hospital, where he was being treated for second-degree burns, saying, “We are grateful that no one else was hurt and thank God that James is on the road to recovery.”

On Monday, more information emerged about Mosqueda.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said Mosqueda served two years of a nearly three-year sentence for drug possession in the late 1990s and was discharged from parole in 2001.


But California Highway Patrol Officer Marc Johnston said Monday that there was no indication that drugs or alcohol played a part in the accident.

“We are looking at this as a property-damage-only collision,” he said. “We would not be looking into his criminal history.”

Sabek Transportation Inc., Mosqueda’s employer, released a statement through a San Francisco television station, saying that Mosqueda “has had a safe driving record during his entire employment

But the federal Transportation Security Administration told the Associated Press on Monday that it would investigate whether it should have banned Mosqueda from driving a vehicle carrying hazardous materials.

State and Bay Area officials expressed relief that the consequences of the collapse were not worse.

Meanwhile, they launched into well-rehearsed disaster preparedness mode to ensure that people and goods flowed as smoothly as possible and repair would be swift:


Transit agencies increased service and waived fares Monday -- a $2.5-million expense that will be reimbursed by the state. Ferry services quadrupled on some routes, and Port of Oakland officials braced for disruption that did not materialize.

Though the free rides expired at midnight Monday, the governor’s office has pledged to cover the costs of expanded transit service -- more buses, trains and ferries -- until the interchange is repaired. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the administration Monday sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration seeking help to defray those costs.

But during Monday’s morning commute, the biggest question on the minds of most was: Where did everybody go?

Whizzing westward on BART, recruiter Linda Haycox was reading the East County Times, whose Page One headline blared “Commute Catastrophe.” She had raced to the Concord station, fearful that a crush of new riders would vacuum up all of the parking spaces.

“But it was normal,” the Pittsburg resident marveled. “I’m just surprised more people weren’t on this thing.”

San Francisco Municipal Transit executive Nathaniel Ford said both street traffic and public transit use were lighter than average Monday. And a spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which carries East Bay commuters into the city, said ridership seemed up only slightly but was spread out since many people chose to go to work later.


Those who drove Monday also were pleasantly surprised.

At 7 a.m., traffic was less congested than normal on the San Francisco approach to the Bay Bridge, which often is backed up or creeping along the downtown skyway.

And in the East Bay, the customary quarter-mile and half-mile traffic jams at the Bay Bridge toll plaza were absent. The metering lights were not even turned on to regulate commute traffic heading into downtown San Francisco.

At the nearby Port of Oakland, officials and truckers said the flow of traffic into one of the country’s biggest container shipping terminals continued without major hitches.

Port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said three of the four freeway exits to the facility were unaffected -- and credited good preparation and traffic control by law enforcement and transportation agencies with making Monday morning’s commute uneventful.

What comes next probably will be much messier, as commuters adjust to the new reality.

“A lot of folks stayed home [Monday], but we can’t count on that blessing,” said Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman Randy Rentschler. “The Bay Area is a busy place and this route is the most congested place in the Bay Area -- by far.”

In a region vulnerable to earthquake, many wondered whether the collapse hinted at structural weakness. But Caltrans officials said Sunday’s inferno was not a teaching moment for Caltrans or for traffic engineers in earthquake country.


“We design our structures to withstand earthquakes, a credible occurrence in the Bay Area,” Weiss said. “This is an incredible occurrence that we don’t design for.”

Others seemed to agree.

Bridge expert Mark Allen Ketchum, a consultant who was lead engineer on seismic retrofitting of the Golden Gate Bridge and the west span of the Bay Bridge, said it would be reasonable for policymakers to reevaluate how much fire resistance freeway bridges should have.

Bu he predicted that it would be very costly and possibly impossible to design a freeway to withstand a rare event such as Sunday’s fire.

“This was a hugely voracious fire fueled by more gasoline than any of us can imagine that managed to burn hot enough and long enough to soften the steel,” he said. “In my opinion, most bridges have plenty of capacity to withstand the fuel from a burning automobile, or a typical semi-trailer truck, which holds between tens and hundreds of gallons of fuel.”



From here to there



Emergency declaration

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declares an emergency, triggering release of state funds and expediting environmental review that could cut up to four years from the process.



Hazardous materials cleanup

Contaminants are identified, collected and removed.


Tear down

A demolition plan is developed. A contractor is hired to remove debris.


Damage assessment

Engineers determine damage to the structure and the land beneath it.


New roadway

Caltrans has two options:

Quickly rebuild the structure using original plans.

Design a different structure using new plans, which could take more than a year.

Caltrans will advertise and award a building contract, possibly with incentives to finish early and penalties for delays.

Source: Caltrans, ESRI.