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Running 405 project takes a steady hand on the wheel

The engineering chief steering the 405 project has ample experience with success under stress. A stint in Iraq helped hone his skills.

July 15, 2011|By Ari Bloomekatz and Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Barbour, director of the 405 Freeway widening project, checks the Mulholland Drive bridge, half of which will be demolished this weekend.
Mike Barbour, director of the 405 Freeway widening project, checks the… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Mike Barbour is awake before dawn. He hears the shoosh of traffic on the 405 as it arcs outside his hotel room in Westchester: 12 lanes sweeping hundreds of thousands of drivers each day into the South Bay and north toward the Sepulveda Pass.

He checks the clock. It is 3 a.m. For the last three years, Barbour has been working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, overseeing the ambitious widening project on one of the most heavily traveled traffic corridors in the nation.

He knows that the success or failure of this $1-billion project falls mostly upon him, and with the 53-hour closure of the 405 Freeway and the demolition of the Mulholland Drive bridge about to begin, his work is at a critical juncture.

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Questions race through his mind. Are the gas lines safe or do they need to be relocated? Do the crews really have access to certain property beside the freeway? Had he been completely clear with them regarding his concerns about a potential landslide?

A former Marine and Air Force engineer, Barbour knows stressful situations. Four years ago, he was in Iraq, and even though he's wary of making any comparisons, he believes it was his experience rebuilding that country's roads and bridges that gave him an edge on this assignment. It also helped that he spent 18 years working with the California Department of Transportation.

But what's made this job most challenging are the expectations riding on it: not just that the work finish on time and on budget, but that commuters not be overly inconvenienced and that the needs of the various agencies and communities are met.

"The city has expectations, the county, Metro and Caltrans," he said. "We all have expectations, so you've got to manage all those expectations throughout the whole process."

Just last week, he decided to relocate media parking for the 10-mile closure after the Skirball Cultural Center objected to having so many cars on its property. He also listened to a top official with the Los Angeles Police Department, who was still annoyed with the MTA for not providing more notice to work out logistics and outreach.

"There are just so many people that want different things," he said. He has likened the overall job to performing heart surgery on a patient who's running a marathon, but he is undaunted.

In a matter of hours, he expects basketball-sized chunks of half the Mulholland bridge to rain down upon the 405 — all to plan.

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Barbour, 57, parks his black Ford Explorer just off Skirball Center Drive. It's late Monday afternoon, four days to go, and he wants to see the prep work. He trades his suit jacket for a neon-orange vest and walks along the shoulder to the bridge.

The 405 flows beneath him. It rises out of the Westside at the 10 Freeway and crests near Mulholland Drive before dropping into the San Fernando Valley and the 101 Freeway. Since 2009, he has obsessed over these 10 miles, and for all its attention, this weekend's demolition is just another part of the job.

In order to widen the freeway to add a carpool lane, he's had to monitor the redesign of the onramps and offramps, the widths of the shoulders and the landscaping, as well as the proposed sound walls and the upgrades of the bridges at Sunset Boulevard and Skirball Center Drive.

He divides his time between the 405 and downtown Los Angeles, where he is in meetings at the MTA and Caltrans buildings, the Police Department and City Hall. In the evenings he speaks at neighborhood association meetings.

If an organizational chart were drawn for the MTA, Barbour's name would be found three rungs beneath the chief executive. He makes about $200,000 a year and oversees a team of Caltrans and Metro employees, almost 100 people.

Among transportation experts, Barbour is known as a "bridge guy," a title he earned from his days with Caltrans, where he began his career in the 1980s as a civil engineer. His work has taken him from military to civilian assignments, which in California have included an analysis of a suicide deterrent system for the Golden Gate Bridge and the reconstruction of the Bay Area's Carquinez Bridge.

Standing on the Mulholland bridge, he notices cuts in the road exposing the sub-deck. He's also pleased to see that crews have readied the utility lines.

"I've never been worried about a project when it's been in Mike's hands," said Doug Failing, the MTA's executive director for highways. According to Failing, Barbour "knows his role at the end of the day is to deliver the project," and a key to that is to be good at team building and knowing how to make tough decisions.

"He's not feeding his ego with this project," said Caltrans District 7 Director Mike Miles. "It's not about Mike Barbour, it's about getting the job done."

The scope of the job has kept Barbour humble. "Authority is responsibility," he said, a philosophy that guided some of his toughest decisions.

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