LOS ANGELES (AP) — It will take at least three weeks to repair a Los Angeles freeway damaged in an arson fire, the California governor said Tuesday, leaving the city already accustomed to soul-crushing traffic without part of a vital artery that serves hundreds of thousands of people daily.
But things could have been worse. Gov. Gavin Newsom said officials have determined the elevated section of Interstate 10 will not need to be demolished, based on analysis of core samples taken from the freeway.
About 100 columns were damaged in the Saturday blaze that spread over 8 acres (3 hectares) under I-10, tearing through wood pallets, cars and other construction materials being stored under the freeway. No injuries were reported but at least 16 homeless people living there were taken to shelters.
No arrests have been made in the arson and Newsom has said investigators are trying to determine if more than one person was involved. He provided no other details.
Newsom said crews are looking at non-stop repairs lasting anywhere from three to five weeks.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to move that into a more immediate future and not extend this to that five-week period,” Newsom told reporters Tuesday, saying crews will work round-the-clock to shore up and repair the area. “This is good news, under the circumstances, and I’ve got to say, on the basis of the preliminary assessments, news that frankly a lot of folks, particularly the experts you see behind me, didn’t expect to share.”
An estimated 300,000 vehicles use the stretch of freeway daily, which runs east-west across the heart of the metropolis and connects with other major freeways. The city has been urging people to avoid the area, take buses and trains, or work from home.
There was some congestion but no gridlock during the Monday morning commute but the evening commute was much busier, city transportation officials said, renewing calls for residents to do all they can to reduce traffic volume.
East of downtown, motorists on 1st Street were getting frustrated Tuesday morning, said Ryan Carreon, who owns Al & Bea’s Mexican Food with his father. Traffic lights turned green, but there was little movement. Many drivers honked to voice their aggravation.
“There was nowhere for them to go,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m glad I’m not in that.’”
Carreon said it was too early to tell if the traffic would affect his business.
“It’s beyond my control,” he said.
Mayor Karen Bass urged people to avoid conflict over the traffic.
“We need Angelenos to work together, to not turn against each other,” Bass said at the news conference Tuesday. “I’ve already heard today of an instance of minor road rage. When there is traffic, Angelenos get angry. We need to stay connected to each other and turn toward each other, and not against each other.”
Bass acknowledged things would be rough for a while, saying “three to five weeks is a long time for us, but this is good news — repair instead of demolition and rebuilding the highway,” which would have taken months.
Beyond a massive traffic headache, the closure is expected to be felt well beyond the metropolis, including possibly slowing the transportation of goods from the twin ports of LA and Long Beach, federal officials said. The ports handle more than half of the goods coming into the country. President Joe Biden has been briefed on the fire.
Over recent days, however, container terminals at the two ports reported normal traffic patterns.
Port of Los Angeles communications director Phillip Sanfield said in an email to The Associated Press that, “So far, our terminal operators are not seeing an impact.” Port of Long Beach spokesman Lee Peterson echoed that in a separate email, saying port officials are monitoring the situation.
Officials have said the damage is reminiscent of the 1994 Northridge earthquake that crumpled elevated sections of I-10 and other freeways. It took more than two months to repair I-10 after the quake.
The mayor said Security Paving Co. Inc., which has been hired for the project, was one of the companies that repaired freeways damaged by that earthquake and has experience in around-the-clock work.
The closure has raised concerns for downtown businesses.
“Our businesses are just bouncing back from the COVID shutdowns. Business was just getting good,” said Blair Besten, director of LA’s Historic Core business improvement district.
California Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant said investigators have identified where the fire started and what caused it after sorting through the rubble for evidence, but did not specify what they found. He had no information on a suspect and said investigators are talking to witnesses, including homeless people and nearby business owners.
Storage yards under highways are common statewide, with the money from the leases going to public transit. Newsom said the practice would be reevaluated following the fire.
The danger of storing flammable materials under elevated interstates has drawn the scrutiny of federal investigators in the past. After a 2017 fire collapsed a section of I-85 in Atlanta, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the Georgia Department of Transportation’s decision to store construction materials beneath the bridge without assessing the fire risk. The department said it immediately changed storage practices.
The governor said California has been in litigation with Apex Development, Inc., the owner of the business leasing the storage property where the fire started. The lease has expired, Newsom said, and the business had been behind in rent while illegally subleasing the space to five or six other entities.
The company owed $78,000 in unpaid rent from September 2022 to August 2023, according to the state’s lawsuit.
“They’ve been out of compliance for some time, that’s why we’re going to court” early next year, Newsom said.
Mainak D’Attaray, an attorney for Apex Development, confirmed the lawsuit in an email to The Associated Press.
“We are currently investigating ourselves what happened at the yard under the freeway. As such, we are not prepared to give an official statement or answer questions until we have determined what actually occurred,” D’Attaray said.
Ertugrul Taciroglu, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Los Angeles, said part of the challenge is how expensive real estate has become.
“Every piece of land is being utilized, so I can see the pressure or the incentives for making use of these spaces under these highways,” he said.
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles; Jeff McMurray in Chicago; and Anisha Frizzell in Atlanta contributed to this report.