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Flawed O.C. Ramp: Fixer-Upper or Do-Over?

Experts are trying to determine the extent of damage to bridge linking the 405 and 55 freeways. Lawsuits are likely to follow the fix.

November 17, 2002|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Even as contractors and transportation officials say they want to avoid the blame game and concentrate on fixing a $12-million carpool bridge, the groundwork is being laid for a legal battle over defects in the connector between the Costa Mesa and San Diego freeways.

By all accounts, it is far too early to tell what is needed to get the half-mile span into service, let alone who is responsible. Engineers have until the end of the year to decide how to repair structural flaws that have stalled the opening of the towering flyover ramp.

There has been much speculation that the entire roadway, except for the columns and foundations, will need to be replaced at tremendous cost to taxpayers and delays for motorists. Estimates for a worst-case scenario have run as high as $10 million, and the opening could be postponed almost eight months.

"The findings and conclusions change daily," said George Urch, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which is funding the project. "What if we tear down the ramp and we didn't need to? What if we don't and there is a safety issue?"

The two-way carpool connector is part of a $125-million project to relieve congestion at the junction of the Costa Mesa and San Diego freeways. The curving bridge was scheduled to open in April, but that now could be delayed until the end of 2003.

Work was stopped in August when construction crews found that concrete had cracked and fallen off supporting walls of large sections that run the length of the bridge. Although the span is in no danger of collapsing, its ability to withstand heavy traffic is in doubt, officials say.

All parties are cooperating to find a remedy, but that quest is proceeding under the guidance of attorneys who have outlined legal issues and helped to hire engineering consultants for Caltrans and the county agency. The various parties involved, meanwhile, talk of "potential litigation" to hold people accountable once repairs are made.

Last week, Caltrans said the bridge designer, CH2M Hill, and builder C.C. Myers Inc. are responsible for "apparent" design and construction defects. Department officials gave both companies 60 days to come up with plans to fix the bridge.

Caltrans is administering the interchange project and provides some oversight as well as design criteria. Jacobs Engineering of Cypress, the project inspector, was hired by OCTA but reports to Caltrans.

CH2M Hill and Myers, which is based in Rancho Cordova near Sacramento, disagree with Caltrans' assessment and want to be paid for the repairs. Caltrans officials said the companies have given notice that they might file claims for damages against the agency -- a preliminary step toward legal action.

C.C. Myers officials referred all inquiries to Caltrans.

But representatives of the engineering firm emphasized that the paramount focus for all parties is fixing the ramp.

"We are working with all the agencies and trying to find the best solution," said Tom Peters, Orange County area manager for CH2M Hill, an international engineering firm. "Every option is still open. Safety above all is the No. 1 concern."

If there are design and construction defects, CH2M Hill and C.C. Myers could be held responsible for the cost of the repairs, sparing taxpayers. Contracts for the San Diego-Costa Mesa freeways interchange project contain language that holds designers, builders and management companies responsible for the services and products they provide.

Construction companies and engineering firms hired by Caltrans also are required to have insurance to cover the costs of repairing construction and design problems.

However, if Caltrans' design criteria are determined to be at fault, then the department could have to pay to repair the bridge. Committees of Caltrans engineers set standards for a variety of construction activities and projects, including grading, roads, ramps, bridges and highways.

While the legal maneuvering goes on, the contractors, Caltrans and OCTA have been working to assess the damage. They are beginning the process of analyzing the findings and determining the soundest methods to repair the bridge.

Officials say the defects involve about 5% of the concrete that covers the bridge's reinforcing steel. Layers of concrete have broken off in 14 places, and cracks run along the interior supporting girders.

Two of the bridge's three sections have been damaged, which leaves the possibility that the unaffected span won't need rebuilding. Meanwhile, repairs needed on the two sections could be limited to repouring concrete or partial replacement of the roadbed.

The defects have weakened the structure and exposed the bridge's interior reinforcing steel, which could cause it to rust and deteriorate faster than normal. The middle section contains most of the damage.

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