10 Freeway reopens ahead of schedule, but it's still not clear when repairs will finish

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Monday morning commuters drive on the reopened portion of the 10 Freeway in downtown on Nov. 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. The section reopened Sunday night around 7 p.m. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Monday morning commuters drive on the reopened portion of the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Morning traffic returned without much fanfare Monday to the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, propped up by a series of temporary shoring structures and still bearing black scorch marks from the massive fire that burned under the overpass this month.

A small army of construction workers erected the shoring posts over the last week with "more than 100 tons of large steel beams and enough 12-by-12-inch heavy wooden posts to stretch over a mile if placed end to end," according to a news release from the California Department of Transportation.

Although commuters can drive on the freeway now that the shoring has taken weight off the fire-damaged concrete columns, there is still repair work to be done, and there will probably be incremental closures for repairs on the upper portion of the freeway, according to officials.

"A lot of the work is actually going to be happening underneath the road," Rafael Molina, deputy director of Caltrans' Division of Traffic Operations, said during a Monday morning traffic briefing.

But the actual nature of that work remains unclear. Caltrans, the state agency responsible for designing and maintaining the state's highways, has not released any information about the timeline for repairs.

Caltrans declined an interview request from The Times about the repair project.

Read more: 'Go faster. The political heat is on.' Inside the race to fix the 10 Freeway in L.A.

After the Nov. 11 fire, which is being investigated as arson as authorities search for a "person of interest," officials initially said it would take three to five weeks to safely reopen the freeway, but the milelong stretch between Alameda Street and the East Los Angeles interchange was closed for eight days and reopened Sunday around 7 p.m.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and L.A. Mayor Karen Bass to stress that the operation to reopen the freeway several weeks ahead of schedule was a joint effort between local, federal and state agencies.

"Tomorrow the commute is back on," Harris said Sunday from the deck of the freeway. "Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.”

Monday morning, traffic roared overhead at Long Beach Avenue and East 15th Street as a handful of contractors in hard hats and high-visibility vests took measurements.

Also on Monday, about a dozen Caltrans trucks were stationed under the freeway and nearby streets were closed to traffic.

Congestion on the freeway had speeds around 25 mph in the westbound lanes, and traffic cleared up at the interchange with the 110 Freeway next to the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Esmeralda Guerra, 33, wondered why her commute from downtown L.A. to Boyle Heights, where she works at a makeshift station for the East Los Angeles Women’s Center giving out free COVID tests and alcohol wipes, was cut in half Monday.

She clapped her hands when she learned the freeway was reopened.

“Oh that’s great news,” she said as she translated the news into Spanish for a co-worker, who also celebrated.

Read more: 'You can smell the pollution': 10 Freeway closure brings traffic, fumes, anger for residents

Robert Vargas, 26, had a quick commute into downtown L.A. from Boyle Heights using the Metro’s E Line train.

There was no difference in his 10-minute commute from the Mariachi Plaza station to the Historic Broadway station compared with last week, he said, but he noticed streets were less crowded.

“There are less trucks in Boyle Heights and the local streets near downtown are definitely more clear,” he said.

Traffic flowed freely through the intersection of Whittier Boulevard and Soto Street in Boyle Heights on Monday morning, a far cry from last week, when semi-trailer trucks making wide turns blocked the intersection and held up traffic, with some neighbors complaining of the exhaust.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation confirmed as much, based on early data on Monday morning traffic. The volume of vehicles passing through key intersections was lower when compared with last week, according to an LADOT spokesperson.

Lisa Liang, 54, an employee at nearby Chinese restaurant Jin Dragon, said she can tell the difference on Soto Street.

“The traffic is much better today on this main road,” said Liang, who commutes from Alhambra to Boyle Heights every weekday for work.

“Last week it took 20 minutes from Alhambra,” she said. “Today, only 12 minutes.”

Read more: Caltrans long aware of conditions under 10 Freeway that fueled fire

Last week, 29-year-old Elodie Graham's usual 10-minute commute from Silver Lake to downtown Los Angeles turned into a 30-minute slog as the detour traffic from the freeway spilled over onto the surface streets.

But Monday, it was a different story.

“It was totally back to normal,” Graham said. “It might be because of Thanksgiving week as well, but it was finally normal today.”

Before building the shoring structures that allowed for traffic to return to the 10, Caltrans cleared more than two dozen burned vehicles and about 264,000 cubic feet of hazardous material that was improperly stored underneath the overpass.

“Thanks to the heroic work of Caltrans and union construction crews and with help from our partners — from the mayor’s office to the White House — the 10’s expedited repair is proof and a point of pride that here in California, we deliver,” Newsom said in an earlier statement.

Read more: Under the 10 Freeway: Immigrant businesses scraped by while landlord dodged Caltrans

Initial tests showed that the fire "caused less structural damage than anticipated," Caltrans said in a news release, and officials credited L.A. firefighters for putting out the blaze before it could cause more damage.

Within hours of the fire, engineers went to work calculating the combined load of the freeway and the vehicle traffic that would need to be supported by shoring, according to a Caltrans engineer who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

Designs for specific repairs of the columns will follow, to be reviewed by seismic and construction experts, according to the engineer.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency responsible for regulating air pollution in the region, said it did not receive public complaints or any requests to test the fire scene, according to a spokesperson. Caltrans spokesperson Jim Medina confirmed that no air quality tests were taken at the site, but a contractor tested the area for hazardous materials and deemed it safe and cleared.

When flames broke out earlier this month at a historic World War II-era blimp hangar in Tustin, South Coast Air Quality Management District staff descended on the scene to gather samples from the burn site and surrounding communities.

The agency tested for the presence of toxic gases, such as benzene, and brought in mobile monitors to detect toxic metals including lead and arsenic.

The now-destroyed hangar at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station was known to have contained asbestos and other potentially hazardous materials and the fire continued to flare for more than a week afterward, snowing visible debris down on homes and streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In contrast, the 10 Freeway fire was extinguished relatively quickly, according to officials, and the overpass probably blocked the fire’s plume and prevented it from spreading, keeping the pollution footprint relatively contained, said Andrew Whelton, a civil engineer at Purdue University who specializes in environmental disaster investigations.

Still, without a detailed accounting of what exactly burned at the site, it’s hard to know what health and environmental risks the area poses to cleanup workers and others in the area, experts say.

“I haven’t seen specific information about exactly what was burned. Knowing that would help inform what you should be testing for,” said Jill Johnston, an associate professor of environmental science at USC.

Given the extent of the necessary repair work, she said, “there are a lot of construction workers nearby and you want to make sure they have proper protective gear.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.