Mike Barbour is awake before dawn. He hears the shoosh of traffic on the 405 as it arcs outside his hotel room in Westchester: 12 lanes sweeping hundreds of thousands of drivers each day into the South Bay and north toward the Sepulveda Pass.
He checks the clock. It is 3 a.m. For the last three years, Barbour has been working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, overseeing the ambitious widening project on one of the most heavily traveled traffic corridors in the nation.
He knows that the success or failure of this $1-billion project falls mostly upon him, and with the 53-hour closure of the 405 Freeway and the demolition of the Mulholland Drive bridge about to begin, his work is at a critical juncture.
Questions race through his mind. Are the gas lines safe or do they need to be relocated? Do the crews really have access to certain property beside the freeway? Had he been completely clear with them regarding his concerns about a potential landslide?
A former Marine and Air Force engineer, Barbour knows stressful situations. Four years ago, he was in Iraq, and even though he’s wary of making any comparisons, he believes it was his experience rebuilding that country’s roads and bridges that gave him an edge on this assignment. It also helped that he spent 18 years working with the California Department of Transportation.
But what’s made this job most challenging are the expectations riding on it: not just that the work finish on time and on budget, but that commuters not be overly inconvenienced and that the needs of the various agencies and communities are met.
“The city has expectations, the county, Metro and Caltrans,” he said. “We all have expectations, so you’ve got to manage all those expectations throughout the whole process.”
Just last week, he decided to relocate media parking for the 10-mile closure after the Skirball Cultural Center objected to having so many cars on its property. He also listened to a top official with the Los Angeles Police Department, who was still annoyed with the MTA for not providing more notice to work out logistics and outreach.
“There are just so many people that want different things,” he said. He has likened the overall job to performing heart surgery on a patient who’s running a marathon, but he is undaunted.
In a matter of hours, he expects basketball-sized chunks of half the Mulholland bridge to rain down upon the 405 — all to plan.
Barbour, 57, parks his black Ford Explorer just off Skirball Center Drive. It’s late Monday afternoon, four days to go, and he wants to see the prep work. He trades his suit jacket for a neon-orange vest and walks along the shoulder to the bridge.
The 405 flows beneath him. It rises out of the Westside at the 10 Freeway and crests near Mulholland Drive before dropping into the San Fernando Valley and the 101 Freeway. Since 2009, he has obsessed over these 10 miles, and for all its attention, this weekend’s demolition is just another part of the job.
In order to widen the freeway to add a carpool lane, he’s had to monitor the redesign of the onramps and offramps, the widths of the shoulders and the landscaping, as well as the proposed sound walls and the upgrades of the bridges at Sunset Boulevard and Skirball Center Drive.
He divides his time between the 405 and downtown Los Angeles, where he is in meetings at the MTA and Caltrans buildings, the Police Department and City Hall. In the evenings he speaks at neighborhood association meetings.
If an organizational chart were drawn for the MTA, Barbour’s name would be found three rungs beneath the chief executive. He makes about $200,000 a year and oversees a team of Caltrans and Metro employees, almost 100 people.
Among transportation experts, Barbour is known as a “bridge guy,” a title he earned from his days with Caltrans, where he began his career in the 1980s as a civil engineer. His work has taken him from military to civilian assignments, which in California have included an analysis of a suicide deterrent system for the Golden Gate Bridge and the reconstruction of the Bay Area’s Carquinez Bridge.
Standing on the Mulholland bridge, he notices cuts in the road exposing the sub-deck. He’s also pleased to see that crews have readied the utility lines.
“I’ve never been worried about a project when it’s been in Mike’s hands,” said Doug Failing, the MTA’s executive director for highways. According to Failing, Barbour “knows his role at the end of the day is to deliver the project,” and a key to that is to be good at team building and knowing how to make tough decisions.
“He’s not feeding his ego with this project,” said Caltrans District 7 Director Mike Miles. “It’s not about Mike Barbour, it’s about getting the job done.”
The scope of the job has kept Barbour humble. “Authority is responsibility,” he said, a philosophy that guided some of his toughest decisions.
Earlier this year, he decided to abandon an earlier proposal to build a parallel bridge just south of the current one; he didn’t want to continue negotiations with homeowners who objected to the design. The alternative plan would have saved $4 million to $10 million, but Barbour realized that entering a political and legal fight would have put the project off schedule — and in the end jeopardized a portion of the project’s funding.
He also had to work with the Getty Center through equally delicate discussions over the relocation of a nearby water main that would have required excavation on its property.
When Andrew Smith, an LAPD commander, talks about Barbour, he imagines facetiously that most city agencies and people in the community are “selling dartboards with his face on it.”
Barbour’s office is on the second floor of the project headquarters in Westchester. When he’s not in the field, his assistant keeps him on schedule. The paperwork for the project alone is overwhelming, and on some days, he’s in back-to-back meetings from early morning to late at night.
On the walls, he has taped pictures of his three grandchildren, a reminder of his life in Sacramento, where he and his wife have lived since 1980. They are accustomed to these separations, but it doesn’t keep her from insisting he change his flight so he can get home early to celebrate family birthdays. He enjoys stepping away from the spotlight of the construction zone.
There are also a few shots of friends he served in Iraq with. The experience has helped define his life. To be in his company today is to be in the presence of a commander. His manner is methodical and disciplined, and if he loses his temper, it’s generally because he feels that time or money is being wasted.
For about a decade, Barbour had been inactive in the Air Force Reserve before changing his status in 2000 to secure his benefits, and soon after Sept.11 he was called up.
The military immediately put his engineering skills to use. He found himself working in Panama, where he built a camp to house 500 soldiers. Josh Reyes, a sergeant who joined in that assignment, was impressed by Barbour’s calm demeanor in spite of the fact that critical supplies got held up in transit. Barbour pushed his crews through 12-hour days, and work was completed on time.
“He was one of the commanders who listened to all of us,” said Reyes, 35, who remembers how Barbour often broke the tension with entertaining stories of hunting and fishing trips.
Logistics were equally complex in Iraq, where he was charged with building roads and bridges, maintaining airbases and expanding an electrical grid. Barbour used his “one team, one fight” mantra to help focus the efforts of both military and civilian agencies.
The issues in Los Angeles are different, Barbour said, and he doesn’t underestimate the challenges, especially on the Westside with such high profile institutions as UCLA, the Federal Building and the Getty and Skirball centers lining the corridor.
“There’s nothing that’s a breeze here.”
At the end of most days, Barbour returns to his hotel. If he eats in, it will be lentil soup and a chance to review his notes for the day ahead. If he eats out, it will be burgers and a beer.
His biggest worry for the weekend is the potential traffic jams on the 405 on either side of the closure and on surrounding freeways. Otherwise, he believes the steady progress reconstructing the bridges at Sunset Boulevard and Skirball Center Drive is a good indicator for the work ahead on the Mulholland bridge.
Everything is in place: up to 200 workers organized in around-the-clock shifts, four hydraulic hoe rams for jack-hammering the bridge, several front-end loaders for scooping up the debris, dozens of trucks for hauling the debris away, water trucks and street sweepers and two dozen light stations for illuminating the scene.
In 11 months, Barbour will be going through the same drill when they take down the other half of the bridge.
He doesn’t know where he will be Monday at 6 a.m., but he just might be asleep, the flow of traffic streaming outside his room.