10 Freeway in downtown L.A. reopens but repair timeline unclear

Morning traffic returned without much fanfare Monday to the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, propped up by a series of temporary shoring structures and still bearing black scorch marks from the massive fire that burned under the overpass this month.

A small army of construction workers erected the shoring posts over the last week with “more than 100 tons of large steel beams and enough 12-by-12-inch heavy wooden posts to stretch over a mile if placed end to end,” according to a news release from the California Department of Transportation.

While commuters can drive on the freeway now that the shoring has taken weight off the fire-damaged concrete columns, there is still repair work to be done, and there will likely be incremental closures for repairs on the upper portion of the freeway, according to officials.

“A lot of the work is actually going to be happening underneath the road,” Rafael Molina, deputy director of Caltrans’ Division of Traffic Operations, said during a Monday morning traffic briefing.

But the actual nature of that work remains unclear. Caltrans, the state agency responsible for designing and maintaining the state’s highways, has not released any information about the timeline for repairs.

Caltrans declined an interview request from The Times about the repair project.

After the Nov. 11 fire, which is being investigated as arson as authorities search for a “person of interest,” officials initially said it would take three to five weeks to safely reopen the freeway, but the mile-long stretch between Alameda Street and the East Los Angeles interchange was closed for eight days and reopened Sunday around 7 p.m.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and L.A. Mayor Karen Bass to stress that the operation to reopen the freeway several weeks ahead of schedule was a joint effort between local, federal and state agencies.

“Tomorrow the commute is back on,” Harris said Sunday from the deck of the freeway. “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.”

Monday morning, traffic roared overhead as a handful of contractors in hard hats and high-visibility vests took measurements.

Congestion had speeds around 25 mph in the westbound lanes, and traffic cleared up at the interchange with the 110 Freeway next to the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Esmeralda Guerra, 33, wondered why her commute from downtown L.A. to Boyle Heights, where she works at a makeshift station for the East Los Angeles Women’s Center giving out free COVID tests and alcohol wipes, was cut in half Monday.

She clapped her hands when she learned the freeway was reopened.

“Oh that’s great news,” she said as she translated the news into Spanish for a co-worker who also celebrated.

Robert Vargas, 26, had a quick commute into downtown L.A. from Boyle Heights using the Metro’s E Line train.

There was no difference in his 10-minute commute from Mariachi Plaza station to Historic Broadway station compared with last week, he said, but he noticed streets were less crowded.

“There are less trucks in Boyle Heights and the local streets near downtown are definitely more clear,” he said.

Traffic flowed freely through the intersection of Whittier Boulevard and Soto Street in Boyle Heights on Monday morning, a far cry from last week, when semi-trailer trucks making wide turns blocked the intersection and held up traffic, with some neighbors complaining of the exhaust.

Lisa Liang, 54, an employee at nearby Chinese restaurant Jin Dragon, said she can tell the difference on Soto Street.

“The traffic is much better today on this main road,” said Liang, who commutes from Alhambra to Boyle Heights every weekday for work.

“Last week it took 20 minutes from Alhambra,” she said. “Today, only 12 minutes.”

Last week, 29-year-old Elodie Graham’s usual 10-minute commute from Silver Lake to downtown Los Angeles turned into a 30-minute slog as the detour traffic from the freeway spilled over onto the surface streets.

But Monday, it was a different story.

“It was totally back to normal,” Graham said. “It might be because of Thanksgiving week as well, but it was finally normal today.”

Before building the shoring structures that allowed for traffic to return to the 10, Caltrans cleared more than two dozen burned vehicles and about 264,000 cubic feet of hazardous material that was improperly stored underneath the overpass.

“Thanks to the heroic work of Caltrans and union construction crews and with help from our partners — from the mayor’s office to the White House — the 10’s expedited repair is proof and a point of pride that here in California, we deliver,” Newsom said in an earlier statement.

Initial tests showed that the fire “caused less structural damage than anticipated,” Caltrans said in a news release, and officials credited L.A. firefighters for putting out the blaze before it could cause more damage.

Within hours of the fire, engineers went to work calculating the combined load of the freeway and the vehicle traffic that would need to be supported by shoring, according to a Caltrans engineer who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

Designs for specific repairs of the columns will follow, to be reviewed by seismic and construction experts, according to the engineer.

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