The grande dame of L.A. freeways still does its charming dance through the hillsides between Pasadena and downtown L.A., but the majestic 110 is showing its age.
The latest example: a 15-foot-deep sinkhole caused by a leaky 1940s-era storm drain that closed the northbound side of the 110 Freeway for more than 20 hours beginning Wednesday night. The freeway finally reopened Thursday evening, but not before causing traffic delays of up to 30 minutes for motorists struggling to get through the area.
The nearly 70-year-old highway marked the beginning of Southern California’s freeway system -- and it is one of the few roads in the country to have won national historic preservation status.
But for all the art deco tunnels, graceful bridges and natural landscaping, state engineers say the 110 is straining against 21st century traffic conditions and sheer age.
“It wasn’t made for today’s travel,” said Derrick Alatorre, a California Department of Transportation spokesman who was surveying the work crews trying desperately to close the hole.
Indeed, Thursday’s closure was perhaps the most significant of various age-related problems to hit the 110 in recent years, including another sinkhole in the same area three years ago.
But the freeway was built in an era when aesthetics in some ways trumped functionality. As a result, the 110 has no shoulders -- and lush plants and trees grow right next to the lanes.
Often, Caltrans must step in to trim back trees, remove fallen debris and replace damaged signs smacked by vans and trucks driving down the narrow lanes. With no shoulder, this roadwork causes crews to close lanes and disrupt commuters, said Caltrans maintenance supervisor Rick Enriquez, who has been working on the Pasadena Freeway for the last eight years.
Now, Caltrans is considering a $16.5-million upgrade that would include replacing the old-fashioned wood and metal center divider with a concrete version. The upgrade would affect the center and side barriers on the 110 between its terminus at Glenarm Street and the 5 Freeway.
Officials have to tread carefully, however, because of the freeway’s historic status and the large preservationist community that opposes anything that would alter its character.
“People who take these roads understand intuitively that this is a different kind of experience than you get on many of the bland, featureless, characterless interstate highways, and people like it,” said Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America.
But traffic experts believe something has to be done to balance historic concerns with modern-day traffic needs.
“It was the first freeway, and it was an experiment when it was built,” said James Moore, director of USC’s transportation engineering program, who travels the 110. “It has very unusual design features that would be totally unacceptable if you were building a freeway today.”
Completed in 1940 and originally called the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the highway is the oldest freeway in the West. Its design was inspired by such East Coast routes as the George Washington Parkway in the Washington, D.C., area; the Sawmill River Parkway north of New York City; and the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut.
Like those roads, the 8.2-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway included undulating ribbons of pavement built for maximum speeds of 45 mph, with minimal shoulders along with sudden and sharp exit ramps.
And as with those Eastern roads, officials have been attempting with limited success to adapt to an era with many more cars.
When the Pasadena Freeway opened, it carried about 27,000 cars a day. Now, at the point where it crosses the 5, the 110 carries about 127,000 cars a day -- making it the eighth-busiest among Caltrans’ 26 regional freeways.
In 2002, the 110 was named a National Scenic Byway, the first such designation for a freeway in any of California’s metropolitan areas. The status allows officials to seek federal funding for improvements.
Preservationists said Thursday that they would fight any efforts to significantly change the freeway’s look.
The large pothole near the center divider north of the Fair Oaks Avenue exit was reported at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Alatorre said.
But after crews inspected the spot, they ordered a complete shutdown of the freeway about 9 p.m. as the hole had spread across the left and center northbound lanes, destabilizing the ground.
Workers then dug out a 15-foot-deep, 12-foot-wide square of earth, discovering that a 26-foot section of underground metal pipe connecting a storm drain on the freeway to the area’s drainage system had ruptured from corrosion.
Traffic was diverted off at Fair Oaks, causing a jam stretching back four exits to Avenue 64, with an average delay of 30 minutes. The lanes reopened about 6 p.m. Thursday after the crews made repairs totaling $170,000.
Commuters like Nadine Romero, a manager at a Starbucks on Fair Oaks, saw their drive times mushroom.
“It usually takes me just 15 minutes from Silver Lake to Pasadena, but today it ended up making me spend 45 minutes on the freeway,” Romero, 31, said. “The 110 is usually not a problem, and is quite an enjoyable drive in the mornings with the L.A. River and nice landscapes.”
Wendy Clark, a 48-year-old South Pasadena native shopping Thursday afternoon at Bristol Farms a few hundred feet from the sinkhole, summed up the push-and-pull 110 experience as she loaded groceries into her SUV.
“It’s a pain in the butt with traffic, but it’s a beautiful thing,” Clark said, adding that she hoped more people would use the Gold Line to lessen the burden on the 110. “I think most of us that know it and what we’re getting into end up liking it just the way it is.”
Caltrans officials said they understand the special relationship between the 110 and its commuters, and feel they have incorporated “context-sensitive design” in their upkeep efforts.
In recent years, construction projects along the 110 have included old-fashioned-style street lamps and special landscaping. This year, improvements have included new lighting in the tunnels north of downtown and resurfacing at the freeway’s northern end.
“It’s very historical, so we don’t want to change it very much,” Enriquez said. “The neighborhood groups out here know there are certain oak trees and flowers they wouldn’t want cut or removed.”