By Dakota Smith, October 19, 2013
Back in December 2011, commuters on the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass drove by an unusual sight. A retaining wall built for the new car-pool lane was collapsing, the gray concrete panels visibly buckling and falling.
Alarmed by the discovery, construction crews tore down the wall. At least 14 other walls also came down and were rebuilt. State officials moved quickly, banning the construction of similar retaining walls throughout California.
Today, the 405 Freeway project is more than 15 months behind schedule, a timeline that has Angelenos bemoaning the traffic congestion caused by construction of the 10-mile car-pool lane.
A federal review quietly released in August of the massive $1 billion project identified the collapsed wall as the “single biggest factor in extending the completion date to September 2014.” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx also noted that a second major factor was an unexpected need for relocations of utility lines.
For critics, the Federal Highway Administration review has renewed concerns about delays surrounding the car-pool lane, and costs associated with the pushback. Already, the project is more than $100 million over budget. The issue of the collapsed wall has also launched a flurry of finger-pointing and lawsuits among groups overseeing the project.
“It has been frustrating,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, whose Westside district includes the project. “I wish they could have foreseen these issues.”
Pushed by unhappy homeowners, Waxman requested the federal review of the 405 project this spring.
The 405 Freeway car-pool lane project cuts through a densely populated area of universities, neighborhoods, and federal buildings. It also connects two interchanges that for years have been considered two of the nation’s most congested — the 405-101 and the 405-10.
Fed-up with the construction, residents say they schedule doctors appointments and school pickups at off-hours to avoid traffic. On a busy day, Encino resident Laurie Kelson said it can take her husband an hour to make his seven-mile commute home from Santa Monica.
“I am disgusted by the process, by the human hours that have been wasted,” Kelson said. “From trying to go home, to work, or anyplace.”
“There’s no relief,” she added.
Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority point to many reasons for the delay. The discovery of utility lines snaking through the area led to time-consuming removal work. A redesign of the Mulholland Drive bridge, sought by locals, also caused a delay, as did a landowners’ lawsuit over property near the Getty Center.
Metro Executive Director Krishniah Murthy said the hurdles facing the project are immense. “We are literally carving right through mountains, and moving a 60-year-old street,” said Murthy, referring to Sepulveda Boulevard. “It is a huge effort.”
The 2011 collapse of the retaining walls near Mountaingate Drive, Murthy said, had a ripple effect on the entire project. That conclusion was also apparently reached by the Federal Highway Administration, which did the review in conjunction with Caltrans, Metro and other agencies.
The mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls support ramps and stabilize the hillside. The structures are part of the more than 18 miles of walls built for the car-pool lane.
In his letter sent in August to Waxman, Foxx wrote: “The December 1, 2011 failure of the mechanically stabilized earth walls, not sound walls, built for the project was the single biggest factor in extending the completion date to September 2014.”
Foxx also indicated the utility line relocation also greatly impacted the project. He sought to assure Waxman that funding for the project, which received $189 million in federal money, isn’t being mishandled.
“All delays are unfortunate,” Foxx wrote, “but I want to emphasize that the Federal dollars invested in this highly complex project are being properly expanded.”
Reached last week, officials at the FHWA said no additional report was generated beyond Foxx’s letter.
Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit is responsible for both the design and construction of the project. Kiewit declined a request for an interview, and referred questions to Metro.
Caltrans launched its own investigation on the December wall failure. The agency report cites the failure of metal straps in the interior of the wall, which ultimately caused the outside panels to buckle.
The Caltrans report states problems first surfaced a month earlier, when workers noticed that panels on the Mountaingate entrance wall began to “bulge outward.”
Caltrans immediately halted any use of a similar wall system in other new highway projects and notified other transportation agencies that might be using it. After the design was retooled by subcontractor SSL LLC, the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company that supplied the walls, Caltrans allowed its design to be used again.
Kiewit, SSL, as well as the project’s designer, global firm HNTB, are in all court, suing one another. In court documents, Kiewit alleges the wall system was “deficient and defective.” SSL has stated the “drain design and installation were inadequate” at the site where the wall collapsed, according to the Caltrans report.
Officials at Metro, named in one of the lawsuits over the walls, said the transit agency doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.
Metro’s Murthy said Metro and Caltrans had inspectors out regularly, but they were not able to spot the issue with the walls because the concrete panels covered the metal bars.
Like many any other area residents, Kelson remembers when the wall collapsed. “Everyone was like, hey, what’s that?” she said. “It was huge, a whole big chunk fell out.”
Today, the car-pool lane is roughly 10 percent over budget. That price tag could significantly rise, depending on claims made about the delays.
Kiewit is paying for the cost of replacing the walls, Murthy said. But there are also costs associated with delays caused by the collapsed structures, and it’s unclear whether those will be borne by the contractor or Metro.
A Metro report on the final costs of the project is expected in the next two months, Murthy said.
Amid the criticism, Metro officials point to the project’s achievements. Construction is 85 percent completed. Already, a 3-mile segment of the new lane has opened. A recent traffic report stated drivers are already seeing their commute times lowered due to the partial lane opening.
Still, officials said the final price tag on the epic project remains uncertain.
“Someone is responsible to pay for the delay costs ... which item of work has caused the delay in completing the project?” Murthy asked. “If we can identify this contractor caused his own delays because of the defective work, then our position is that you are not entitled to any delay costs.”
Kelson questions whether local taxpayers or the federal government will be liable for costs related to the delays. And the federal review pointing to the retaining walls and utility lines doesn’t calm her frustration.
“It feels like the window dressing,” Kelson said. “What difference does it make? We want the project completed and we want to know who is going to pay.”