710 Freeway project redoes chunks of new concrete divider

Less than two years after finishing construction on a concrete median divider on the Long Beach freeway, Caltrans is demolishing about a quarter of the $26-million barrier -- and drawing questions from the head of a state spending oversight panel.

The A-shaped concrete structure, typical of those seen on many urban freeways, was considered a top safety priority because big-rig trucks kept smashing through an old wood-post and metal guardrail median, causing deadly collisions.

But now, with an infusion of tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, a new repaving project is underway and heavy equipment is ripping out more than 2 miles of the 9-mile barrier completed in June 2008. The tear-down process, in a stretch of freeway near South Gate and Bell Gardens, is costing $111,000.

The demolition is necessary, the California Department of Transportation says, because the repaving project will lower portions of the freeway to increase bridge clearances for tall vehicles. Sections of the new median would then be too tall -- obstructing lines of sight -- so they need to be replaced, the agency says.

The piles of rubble and bent steel in the middle of the freeway so soon after the last improvements were completed caught the attention of the area’s state assemblyman, Democrat Hector de la Torre.

“It is perplexing, to say the least,” he said.

De la Torre, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, noted that the median had been financed with voter-approved transportation bond money. “It isn’t helpful to dig up work you’ve done -- within two years,” he said, adding that he would seek more information on the project and on any others that may have used economic recovery funds to redo recent state construction.

Interviews and e-mails from the agency show the repaving project was initiated in 2007, in the midst of the concrete barrier’s construction.

But Caltrans says the two projects could not be coordinated. The median safety concerns had to be addressed immediately and it was not clear when money might come for the repaving project, agency spokeswoman Judy Gish said.

The state also faced liability issues, Gish said. The barrier “could not wait until this other project was or wasn’t funded,” she said in an interview last week.

Caltrans’ explanation of the demolition work evolved over several days.

In response to The Times’ initial inquiries, Gish stressed that only temporary median barriers were being removed. They had been used because planners knew the repaving project would be coming shortly. “It’s not that we’re ripping out a barrier we just put in, as we are not wont to do that,” she said in a telephone message.

Three days later she apologized, saying those statements were incorrect and that she was seeking an accurate explanation from Caltrans employees involved in the project. She said she was having difficulty getting responses. Subsequently, Gish confirmed that the median was a permanent, embedded structure and said it had to be removed because of the repaving project.

A few days after that, she emphasized that the agency had proceeded with the barrier because it was a lifesaving imperative. “It was an emergency project,” she said.

(The description was later qualified somewhat in a written Caltrans response forwarded by Gish. It said, “The $26-million median construction project . . . was more or less an emergency project that followed regular project development procedures.”)

Thick, removable concrete median barriers have been used nearby on the freeway since the old guardrail divider was removed. But Gish said that was only because money ran out to build the permanent structure. Those temporary barricades are safer than the old median, but not as effective at stopping large trucks as anchored structures built into the freeway, she said.

Temporary barriers also are in place where the permanent median has been demolished.

The repaving project is the latest installment in a much larger, decadelong effort to redo almost the entire 710 Freeway, which connects the region’s ports with industrial areas and distribution centers in central Los Angeles County. The reconstruction includes widening freeway shoulders in some places and using a smooth, long-life asphalt concrete material. Segments further south have been completed.

De la Torre said he had heard Caltrans’ explanation. But he still questioned the wisdom of using economic recovery money on a project that involved tearing out portions of a recent highway improvement.

“Of all the work that has to be done in L.A. County, all of the transportation work, all of the infrastructure, it seems they could have picked one where they wouldn’t have to dig things up and start all over again,” he said.

The timing of the median removal “wasn’t great,” Gish acknowledged. But the repaving project is needed, she said, and the state is fortunate to now have money for it. Federal stimulus funding covers about 84% of the $55.9-million repaving project.

Meanwhile, more of the barrier completed 22 months ago is expected to be removed and rebuilt as the repaving work moves north toward Interstate 10 under the next contract, Caltrans said. How much won’t be clear until design work for that segment is completed, Gish said.