Caltrans is doing Maze fix right

Yes, we all should have had more confidence in the “new Caltrans” getting repairs done rapidly and right, when two key Bay Bridge connectors were knocked out by a tanker truck explosion April 29. And now we also recognize that Will Kempton, named Caltrans director by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2004, is likely California’s best new hire of the early 21st century.

The Bay Area should have understood sooner that it was not merely a series of flukes when Kempton’s Caltrans got Highway 1 reopened ahead of schedule after last spring’s Devil’s Slide landslide, and when the controversial 2006 Bay Bridge weekend repair closures took place smoothly and without new gridlock.

The lingering Caltrans credibility problem was just that Bay Area residents, and Californians in general, have long been habituated to reflexively fear the worst whenever thestate’s transportation department is needed for post-emergency reconstruction. Here in the Bay Area we are still caught in the unfolding nightmare of replacing the weakened eastern Bay Bridge span, which failed and was proven unsafe 18 years ago in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

But a new era for Caltrans was confirmed shortly before 4:30 a.m. on Monday as both lanes of the westbound Interstate Highway 80 connector to southbound Interstate Highway 880 in Oakland reopened three days ahead of schedule, tested as perfectly safe although still blackened with soot only eight days after the destroyed eastbound Interstate 580 collapsed onto it.

In order to accomplish this rapid-fire restoration of service, Caltrans workers used stabilizing beams to shore up roughly 160-200 feet of freeway deck, which dropped about 9 inches. They repaired the guardrails, straightened the freeway’s girders and repaved the deck with polyester concrete. Blueprints were drawn up and detours marked out while the wreckage was still smoldering. Actual construction began within 48 hours.

As this editorial was being prepared, Caltrans was just hours away from selecting a contractor to immediately begin work on rebuilding the collapsed I-580 section in time for the June 27 deadline. The three finalist bids were between $867,075 and $1.4 million, although Caltrans estimated the job would cost as much as $5.2 million. Encouragingly, these low bids mean that the contractors intend to finish the work very, very fast and earn most of their money from the $200,000 bonus authorized for each day the bridge is finished ahead of deadline. (There is also a $200,000 fine for each day of finishing after deadline.)

A related piece of encouraging news is that the low bidder was C.C. Myers, the Sacramento County company that repaired the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in just 66 days. They finished 74 days ahead of schedule and earned a $15.4 million bonus on top of the $14.7 million contract.

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