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Ventura County Bridge Project to Test Caltrans Engineers' Metal

Team will be overseeing first use of a new type of steel piling in the widening of the Santa Clara River span.

October 13, 2002|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

A commuter's nightmare can be an engineer's dream.

Dan Freeman and Dragan Buha know they're working on a project--the $100-million widening of the Santa Clara River bridge--whose size and scope comes around only once or twice in a career.

And the two are enjoying every minute of it.

"We're engineers," Freeman said. "This is exciting."

Buha, 43, who lives in Agoura Hills, and Freeman 48, of Lakewood have a combined 28 years with Caltrans, working on highways throughout Southern California.

They didn't have to compete for the job. It came to them automatically as top engineers in Caltrans District 7, which covers Ventura County and part of northern Los Angeles County.

Poring over bound diagrams and reams of figures outlining the projects' cost, Buha, a senior engineer, quietly directs the project from a Caltrans office in Thousand Oaks. Although his responsibilities have largely kept him confined to the office until now, he'll spend more time at the site as work on the bridge intensifies.

Freeman oversees the operation, as well as other highway projects in the district, from a Caltrans office in Los Angeles. His title may be area manager, but he'll always be an engineer at heart, he said.

He rattles off a long list of Southern California roads he has worked on, including the Century Freeway near Los Angeles International Airport, the interchange of the Century and Harbor freeways, the widening of the Harbor Freeway, and the Artesia Freeway in Orange County.

Freeman, who has a desk job, said he envies Buha's opportunity to oversee the massive project.

"If I was still a senior engineer, I'd want to be doing what he's doing," Freeman said, smiling at his colleague in the Thousand Oaks field office.

The Santa Clara River bridge project holds a special significance for Freeman and Buha because Caltrans will be testing a new, high-capacity piling system that promises to drive bigger piles into the ground to hold up bridges.

If it works, fewer steel pilings will be needed to support bridges subject to severe scouring, or erosion. Eventually, it could save taxpayers millions of dollars and months of construction, Caltrans officials said.

It will be tested for the first time in Ventura County. The system is designed to carry up to 8 million pounds and drive piles 6 to 7 feet in diameter into the earth.

Buha and Freeman are working closely with primary contractors MCM Construction, based in Sacramento, and Security Paving in Sun Valley.

With Ventura County's population growing and subdivisions popping up all over, traffic is big news.

Ventura County supervisors recently agreed to explore forming a regional traffic authority to deal with traffic problems on the Ventura Freeway, and Caltrans and the Ventura and Los Angeles county transportation agencies are completing a $4.5-million study of the freeway from Thousand Oaks to downtown Los Angeles.

What they already know is that the number of cars traveling over the bridge where Oxnard meets Ventura is growing.

The figure rose from 126,000 a day in 1990 to 163,000 in 2000.

It's expected to climb to 192,000 by 2020.

Anyone driving over the bridge now can see cranes looming skyward from the construction staging area and enormous pilings stacked nearby as crews prepare to sink them into the ground.

It will take 64,000 cubic meters of concrete and 15 million pounds of steel to create the new bridge, Buha said.

During construction, all lanes of the Ventura Freeway will stay open during peak commuter hours, and a large chunk of the work will be done at night, the engineers said.

"We're trying to minimize the effect on traffic, which is why the project takes so long," Freeman said. "But there will be some inconvenience."

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