Homeless Encampment Responsible for Freeway Fire?
Major Impact on Commuter Traffic
November 9, 2023
By Stephen HADLAND
Los Angeles motorists should expect traffic snarls during the Monday commute as crews assess how much damage was caused by a raging fire over the weekend that closed a major elevated interstate near downtown, officials said.
In what was reminiscent of the 1994 Northridge earthquake a massive fire under Interstate 10 overpass in Los Angeles has closed the freeway for an indefinite period.
fire Saturday morning under the 10 freeway has closed the interstate for 3 to 12 weeks, while the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) repairs damage to a bridge. The fire started at a homeless encampment and quickly spread to a storage facility with pallets and vehicles such as trucks. The fire was too intense for firemen to put out quickly. It burned for about 8 hours starting at 4 am Saturday morning. 150 firefighters, 12 trucks and a helicopter were involved in the fight.
According to David Ortiz, public information officer for the Los Angeles Fire Department, a number of RV's housing homeless people were parked under the bridge. The area also has a large homeless encampment consisting of tents.
Homeless people routinely steal electricity from light fixtures, which of course creates a fire hazard. The Los Angeles County Fire Department says that 50% of fires in LA County begin in homeless encampments or originate with homeless people.
Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles County. Mayor Karen Bass has asked traffic officials to consider how to mitigate traffic with the coming work week. Bass is encouraging employers in DTLA to ask their employees to work from home.
"Both directions of the 10 Freeway near Alameda in Downtown Los Angeles are shutdown following a massive pallet fire. @LAFD on scene. CALTRANS is determining if the structural integrity of the freeway has been compromised."
On Saturday 11.11.23, @Caltrans tweeted: "I-10 will be FULLY CLOSED until further notice between the East LA Connector and Alameda St due to a fire that damaged the freeway. Avoids the area, expect major delays & seek alternate routes to events in #DTLA or use @metrolosangeles public
Hazardous materials teams were clearing burned material from underneath Interstate 10 to make way for engineers who will ensure the columns and deck of the highway can support the 300,000 vehicles that typically travel that route daily, Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Sunday.
"Remember, this is an investigation as to the cause of how this occurred, as well as a hazmat and structural engineering question," Newsom said. "Can you open a few lanes? Can you retrofit the columns? Is the bridge deck intact to allow for a few lanes to remain open again?"
January 17, 1994 earthquake centered in the heart of Los Angeles injured over 9,000 people, left about 22,000 people in shelters and tents, severely damaged or destroyed 54,000 buildings, left 5,000 homes without water, and left 35,000 homes without gas. The quake also destroyed freeway bridges on four main arteries of the Southern California freeway system, including collapsed bridges on the Santa Monica Freeway, the most heavily used highway in the world.1
"The collapse of the Santa Monica, so close to downtown, was like a wallop straight to Los Angeles' heart."2 Because it carries as many as 341,000 vehicles per day,3 the shutdown of the Santa Monica Freeway (also called I-10) cost California an estimated $1 million per day in lost wages, added fuel cost, and depressed business activity.4 In order to get L.A.'s transportation system up and running again as quickly as possible, Governor Pete Wilson immediately declared a state of emergency and suspended a variety of regulations to expedite the rebuilding process.5 Governor Wilson explained his actions to a U.S. Senate committee soon after Hurricane Katrina:
We were rebuilding the roads and bridges within 24 hours of the earthquake. I issued an executive order suspending all statutes and regulations related to state contracting....My goal was to reopen I-10 within 6 months, and every other road within a year. Each contract included an incentive if the work was late, we charged a fine and if it was completed early, we paid a bonus and the motorists in Los Angeles were happy each time we did. We waived the requirements for lengthy environmental and permitting reviews for strict replacement work cutting 18 to 24 months off the construction schedule.
I cut the rules impeding recovery in other areas as well: Suspended several trucking rules...suspended overtime rules to give employers more flexibility in setting work schedules and reducing congestion during normal commute hours... expedited permitting of reconstruction projects by waiving many of the procedural requirements, and putting staff from all state and local permitting agencies into one building.6
Congress also did its part. The quake occurred on January 17, and by February 11, Congress had authorized $9 billion in federal aid, about half of which went to disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Almost $1.4 billion was allocated to federal highway reconstruction.7
Opened up to competitive bidding, the contract to rebuild the collapsed I-10 bridges was signed on February 5, less than 20 days after the quake. The freeway opened for traffic April 11, thus completing the work a mere 66 days after it began, and getting traffic moving again in only 85 days after the earthquake.8
This rapid reconstruction in California was done within the normal operation and regulations of the Davis-Bacon Act. Governor Wilson did relax other government procurement regulations, thereby allowing a construction contract to be finalized in the space of about two weeks rather than the more normal three months.9 He also relaxed regulations governing the permitting of "strict replacement" construction projects in order to expedite the reconstruction.10 Finally, Governor Wilson implemented a bidding procedure and incentive system that tied potential profits on the I-10 rebuild to very rapid completion of the project. The evidence shows that the Davis-Bacon wage regulations actually assisted Governor Wilson in creating the profit and wage incentives needed to get the Santa Monica Freeway up and running in the shortest time possible.
The contractor made a significant profit
In the two years prior to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, CC Myers had done more work for Caltrans than any other highway contractor (eight projects totaling $132 million in 1992, and four projects totaling $108 million in 1993).20
CC Myers' plan for the Santa Monica freeway was to work around the clock and to make time the key focus of the company's construction strategy. For instance, when the railroads informed CC Myers that the delivery of steel beams needed to rebuild the I-10 bridges would take three weeks to arrive, Myers chartered his own trains to carry supplies from Arkansas and Texas to Los Angeles at the cost of $119,000.21 To speed construction, Myers rebuilt the two fallen Santa Monica bridges simultaneously with the work and flow of materials moving continuously rather than staggered. Workers were put on 12-hour shifts and crews worked around the clock, seven days a week. Work continued regardless of weather, and Caltrans' inspectors were available around the clock to approve on-going work and to monitor safety. Work crews were heavily staffed, with two superintendents per bridge project ensuring that there were supervisors available around the clock. Myers hired 228 carpenters instead of the usual 65 for this size project. He hired 134 iron workers instead of a more typical 15. A more-expensive, fast-drying concrete was used to speed project completion.22
Workers were pushed hard, and that showed in their faces and in their pocket books. Iron workers complained of fatigue from the daily overtime work, so CC Myers hired more.23 But workers were both excited and well-remunerated for their hard work. Take, for instance, the Washington Post report on a highly skilled union crane operator:
High above La Cienega Boulevard, motors whine, dust clouds billow and Jim Lichnovsky and other once-unemployed Californians are working day and night to rebuild one of the world's busiest highways, shattered by last January's deadly earthquake....The urgent priority given the project, said Lichnovsky, a 37-year-old unionized construction worker from Burbank who had been jobless for two months before the earth shook, has pushed his work week to 80 hours and raised his pay scale to as much as $600 a day. Altogether he has earned $21,000 in seven breakneck weeks of hoisting plywood boards and steel beams.24
Similarly, Herman Aleem, of Inglewood, was unemployed prior to the quake. Working on Myers' project, he earned $23.90 per hour straight time for the first 40 hours, $35.85 in time-and-a-half pay for the next 20 hours, and double-time ($47.80) for the last 20 hours of his 80-hour week. These Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates brought Aleem more than $2,600 per week.2
Hiring extra crews, paying overtime, renting extra equipment, chartering trains, all cut into CC Myers' $14.9 million direct costs and $14.5 million bonus. A CC Myers' executive estimated that the project cost 25% to 30% more than a comparable project done at a normal pace and taking months longer to complete.26 Despite the added costs, the firm's president estimated that he would make an $8 million profit from the two-month, $29.4 million job, representing 27% of the total cost of the project.
Newsom said answering those questions would be a "24-7 operation," but officials couldn't yet offer a timeline for when the highway might reopen.