Michael A. Barbour: The roadie
Maybe the last time a San Diego Freeway construction project got this much attention was back in the 1950s, when a man named L. Ewing Scott was convicted of murdering his socialite wife. According to urban legend, he hid her body in the newly poured concrete of the Sunset Boulevard offramp (northbound) of the San Diego Freeway.
More than half a century later, L.A.'s Westside is all atwitter over the 405, but not about anything so gruesome as a corpse: It’s the immense task of adding 10 miles of HOV lane to the northbound 405 over Sepulveda Pass, completing a carpool link from the Valley to the O.C.
The man in charge? Metro’s Mike Barbour, a Caltrans veteran with a specialty in bridges (and overpasses). The billion-dollar-plus project will touch the lives and drives of hundreds of thousands of commuters every day until major work is finished, set for June 2013.
He’s an old hand at building bridges and freeways the length and breadth of California, including the Carquinez Straits bridge in Northern California. His all-time favorite bridges: the Golden Gate, and whatever he’s working on right now.
California drivers get a bad rap. Do you think we deserve it?
I’ve driven in worse places. [We’re] actually probably better drivers because there’s so much traffic. Just the amount of people, the cars, the lanes, the difficulty of driving in this area -- that’s tough. Having people carpool, having mass transit -- I think there’s an overall benefit. I’m not a proponent of paving over L.A.. I’m more of a “let’s be smart about what construction we do and minimize the impact we have.” Carpools are a great part of that. Will they transition to something else? Maybe there’ll be rail coming down the freeways at some point.
This isn’t an abstract exercise for you. You grew up driving these freeways -- including the one you’re widening now.
I grew up in the San Pedro-Long Beach area. When I was 16, I used to drive to Costa Mesa. My dad owned a tropical fish store down there, and I used to work there, so I’ve been on the freeways a long time.
How did you get into this business?
I was good at math, so when I got out of the Marines in 1980, engineering sounded like it paid OK, and it was more outdoors, and I liked that. When I got out of school, it was 1983. There was nobody being hired except [by] Caltrans. I took a job with Caltrans structure and design.
While you were at Caltrans, you did what?
Caltrans had one of the best training programs for engineers you could ever do. Six months in design, six months in construction and the rest of the rotation would be in highway design or geo-technical or maintenance work. You got to work with all the different groups, and you got a good understanding of all the aspects of engineering. I definitely enjoy the construction. I like the construction crews. I like working with these guys. As far as design goes, I like seeing projects built. Really the biggest thing, whatever you’re doing, is, do you see it get built?
Do you get to put your initials somewhere in the concrete? Anyone who’s ever poured a sidewalk has done that.
I’ve got [one of] those at my house. All my kids -- everybody’s on it. My dog walked on it. I had one job where some Caltrans guys wanted to put their initials on a sound wall -- that was a no-no.
At a bit over a billion dollars, is this the biggest project you’ve done?
I guess dollar-wise, it’s absolutely the biggest job, but I’ve been involved in suspension bridges in Northern California, the Carquinez . I’ve been involved with interchanges here in L.A., several of them. The [Highway] 30-[Interstate] 15 interchange came out of my design section.
Ever get to write a really, really big check?
The first check we gave the  contractor was, I think, $30-something million. I made a copy!
You spent time in Iraq in 2003, working with the coalition provisional authority.
I got to work with the Iraqi Ministry of Construction. My counterpart was the director of roads and bridges. Their engineers are the same as ours; they deal with the same issues we deal with. [We] deal with a local community advisory committee. When you get to Iraq, you’re dealing with the sheik and his tribe. I think the U.S. was somewhat arrogant -- a lot of us in the West are, but we actually [had] good relationships with them.
You’ve had a lot of community meetings for the 405 project.
I like to do them. We want to be upfront with the community that this is what we intend to do. When you get down to it, you definitely need to not make any enemies out there and to get them all involved with the projects.
What are the worries you’re hearing most often?
The impact [of construction] and how long it is going to last. I think they appreciate the fact that it’s going to help their mobility in the future. But they’re looking for information and communication.
Are they angry?
Some are, but that’s normal. There’s always somebody who’s got kind of an ax to grind, but there’s not many of those.
But our objective is to build a trust with them so that they believe that when we say something, we’re going to follow through. We’re not trying to hide something. You’re looking for the person who’s just saying, “I’m just an average person, I live in this area, and these are my concerns.”
They know you may not be able to help them, but they want their concerns heard.
The Mulholland bridge [over the 405] is a great example. A lot of folks there do not want a big significant icon [built] there, whereas somebody just driving through might actually want it. The community is looking for something more modest, that kind of fits with their somewhat rural area.
Does aesthetics matter?
It always matters to me. I come from a background of bridge design, so I try to build things that are aesthetic and blend in; but as an engineer, you’re really focused on the cost, how efficient it’s going to be. I believe that there’s always a right bridge for a right site. And what’s acceptable to the community? What do they want to see? I’ve built some nice bridges, so I feel that’s my objective, but sometimes a lot of freeway stuff is more functional than aesthetic.
Do you go to the ribbon-cuttings on your projects?
I get invited; I don’t go. I went to one, Carquinez. I got a [commemorative] shovel. I actually use it in my backyard. I broke it a couple of years ago.
Is the 405 Freeway the busiest in these parts?
Definitely. The problem is, the congestion starts early and ends late. The HOV [lane] on the 405 -- it [will] connect the San Fernando Valley to Orange County -- so it is going to help you on either end of the commute. Maybe you can leave later in the morning or later in the afternoon. We hope that people will start using the HOV lanes across L.A., not just here.
Any secret routes you’ve figured out to downtown?
I use Rodeo to get across; I go down La Cienega. The funny part is, every time I drive with somebody from Metro or Caltrans, they have their own way too. I’ve tried ‘em all. At the end of the day, when it’s busy out there, you can shave a few minutes off your commute but you’re not making a huge impact. I think the biggest thing is to just keep going, to feel like you’re actually moving, instead of a freeway.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s published interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.