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Golden State Freeway Opens 3 Weeks Early


Beneath gray skies that could not dampen the relief of commuters and truckers across California, the Golden State Freeway partially reopened Tuesday over Gavin Canyon in northern Los Angeles County, exactly four months after two 80-foot-high bridges collapsed in the Northridge earthquake.

A raincoat-wrapped Gov. Pete Wilson and local dignitaries heralded the early reconstruction of the freeway, the commercial lifeline between Southern California and the rest of the state.

"We're here to celebrate the latest victory in California's victory march in the wake of the Northridge earthquake," Wilson said of the freeway's reopening three weeks ahead of schedule. "This effort is going to put California, specifically the Los Angeles area, back on the fast lane to recovery."

State officials and the California Trucking Assn. have estimated that the closure of the Golden State Freeway cost the region about $550,000 in lost commerce per day. So perhaps it was fitting that the first vehicles to navigate the new bridges--behind California Highway Patrol squad cars with flashing lights--were tractor-trailers with Viking Freight System, one of California's largest intrastate carrier of goods.

"These guys just want to get from Point A to Point B and see their families, so this is a big thing," Senior Vice President Terry Shambaugh said from company headquarters in San Jose.

Wilson opened four restored southbound lanes at 2:30 p.m., flashing a thumbs-up sign at dozens of honking and whooping motorists who had resigned themselves to long backups on the Old Road detour around the downed freeway in Newhall. The four northbound lanes are scheduled to be opened sometime before noon today after the contractor moves the detour, which has carried the bulk of freeway traffic since Caltrans opened it Jan. 29.

Within 30 minutes of the removal of the road barriers, the Golden State returned to its old ways. Traffic slowed to 25 m.p.h. The freeway carried an average of 135,000 vehicles a day before the quake. The detour averaged 88,000 vehicles a day.

Caltrans officials had expected to begin putting the freeway back in business today. But consultations with the governor's office and the contractor late Monday night pushed the date up to Tuesday afternoon, sending officials scrambling to cobble together an opening ceremony complete with balloons and caterer.

"We realized the contractor would be ready earlier than we thought," said Caltrans Director James W. van Loben Sels, "so we got on the phone and said, 'We can't wait any longer.' "

The reconstruction of the twin Gavin Canyon spans caps 3 1/2 months of round-the-clock work by Riverside-based E. L. Yeager Construction Co., which will harvest a bonus of about $4.5 million for finishing the project ahead of the planned June 8 date. The original contract was worth $14.8 million.

Although the financial incentives--including an extra $14.5 million awarded to the company that rebuilt the shattered Santa Monica Freeway--have come under recent criticism, Wilson said the expense was justified.

"It's money well-spent," he said. "It's the kind of thing the private sector does routinely."

Repair of the Santa Monica Freeway--the world's busiest--was completed by April, but Caltrans District Director Jerry Baxter, who oversees Los Angeles and Ventura counties, said restoration of Interstate 5 was also a high priority because of its economic significance and the lack of surface street alternatives through the Newhall Pass.

"In my mind this was probably the most important bridge," Baxter said. "With the Santa Monica, we had alternate routes. (With the Golden State Freeway) we had no alternate routes. This is the major commerce connection with Central and Northern California."

Work on the I-5 was more arduous and complex than reconstructing the Santa Monica Freeway, Caltrans officials said. The overpasses rise four times higher over the ground than the 20-foot bridges on the Santa Monica. Greater inaccessibility to supply trucks and adverse weather conditions in the windy pass also made the job more difficult.

But officials credited a cooperative contractor, streamlined bidding and permitting processes and an effective partnership between federal, state and local agencies with speeding work along.

"It's almost a miracle," said Jacques Yeager, chairman of the contracting firm that devoted 200 employees--three times the normal number--to the repair project.

At the opening Tuesday, there was none of the political sniping that was an undercurrent to last month's reopening of the Santa Monica, when some federal officials privately complained that Wilson hogged the credit for a project paid for with federal money. In fact, Wilson and Rodney Slater of the Federal Highway Administration remarked pointedly on the good working relationship among all parties involved.

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