Hooray for speedy I-580 reopening

On those happy occasions when the public and private sectors work together seamlessly to solve a nasty problem with record-breaking speed, all of us can feel a sense of proud satisfaction.

All citizens want to have confidence that when trouble strikes, their government will be there with innovative solutions and good management. That is exactly what happened in Northern California, as last night the second of two vital eastern Bay Bridge connectors reopened only 25 days after being destroyed in a fiery tanker truck crash.

The Bay Area highway commute is already pushing capacity. So when the earliest engineering estimates warned of an 18-month closure of the Interstate 580 overpass and the Interstate 80 connector to Interstate 880, drivers feared a lengthy period of crossbay pain and suffering.

But then Highway I-80 quickly proved to be repairable instead of necessitating total replacement. Caltrans crews working around the clock reinforced the damaged section so it could reopen to normal traffic only nine days after becoming impassable.

Still, a football-field length of the I-580 overpass was pulverized into falling rubble by the fuel explosion, and the official Caltrans replacement deadline was June 27. But the winning contractor got the job done in less than half that time —and the overpass even opened about nine hours earlier than previously announced.

Bountiful kudos all around for this impressive feat of public works! Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger played an unaccustomed supporting role in this drama, he enabled immediate work to commence by doing everything possible to clear the way. He declared a state of emergency and ordered the state to advance necessary funding at once, without awaiting federal monies available for interstate highway emergencies. The governor even arranged to reimburse public transportation agencies the $2.5 million cost of free rides on the first closure day.

We already praised the “new Caltrans” in an editorial when I-80 reopened May 7. But under Schwarzenegger’s Caltrans director Will Kempton, who again proved himself a maestro of public works management, the formerly stolid highway agency seems virtually reborn as a hard-charging creative force. Caltrans put through the I-580 work bids in record time, structuring the contract so the maximum $5 million bonus payout could only be earned by completing a safe replacement weeksahead of schedule.

Low bidder C.C. Myers added to his company’s luster as California’s foremost speed-bonus road builder first won in 1994. After the Northridge earthquake, Myers repaired the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles 74 days ahead of schedule, earning a $15.4 million bonus atop the $14.7 million contract.

Myers’ crews were working nonstop almost as soon as the contract was signed. And hard-to-get fabricated steel beams were en route from Arizona within days. The commuting public also deserves praise for acting sensibly throughout the closure, even riding BART in record numbers.

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