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Water, Water Everywhere

April 04, 1999

Construction of the 17.3-mile, $2.2-billion Century Freeway from El Segundo to Norwalk posed huge political problems as well as engineering ones. The project was stalled by litigation for years over the issue of replacement housing for those who were displaced. And a political decision back in 1968 led to an engineering problem that plagues Caltrans to this day.

As the freeway was being designed, citizens in Downey and South Gate protested the project and threatened to bring it to a halt. Caltrans decided to drop the roadbed by 20 to 30 feet along a 3 1/2-mile stretch so the freeway would be virtually invisible to those living nearby and traffic noise would be muted.

But there was a problem. The lowered freeway bed would be sitting atop a shallow water table. As related by Times writer Virginia Ellis, designers said construction of the roadbed there was not feasible. But a month later, that decision was overruled. Suddenly it seemed the problem could be contained by storm drains.

Thirty years and some $60 million later, Caltrans still is trying to keep the stretch of freeway from cracking and collapsing. It didn't help that the original design was made during drought years. As wet years followed, the water table rose and undermined the roadbed. Caltrans now is embarked on a costly well-drilling program in hopes of halting the erosion.

It may be that Caltrans has done its best to fix the problem. Where the agency failed, however, was in keeping the matter secret all these years. The governor's office should have been advised. The Legislature should have been advised. There should have been constant audits and oversight.

Now this 30-year-old headache falls to the Davis administration; obviously it should make sure that the new solution actually fixes the problem. The administration also should put in place a mechanism--one that at the least requires immediate disclosure--in order to keep such a colossal mess from occurring again.

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