LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles motorists returned to a much more normal commute Monday as an elevated section of a major highway reopened significantly faster than initially expected after an arson incident shut down the road for more than a week.
The stretch of Interstate 10 south of downtown reopened Sunday evening, and authorities reassured commuters that the highway was safe after emergency work to shore up the structure until permanent repairs to burned supports could be completed.
“Yes, the 10 is open,” said Laura Rubio-Cornejo, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, during a morning briefing on the status of the interstate, which carries about 300,000 vehicles daily and connects to other major routes.
The early morning inferno on Nov. 11 was fueled by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company’s lease agreement.
Initial worst-case scenarios indicated that the motorway section would have to be demolished and rebuilt. Officials then said tests showed it could be repaired in three to five weeks and that with massive supports, traffic could return much sooner.
Officials said last week that all lanes were expected to reopen by Tuesday, but postponed it after significant progress in around-the-clock work.
“For us it wasn’t just about speed. We wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Sunday attended by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Mayor Karen Bass.
“This is a great day in our city,” Bass said. “Let me thank everyone who worked 24 hours to make this effort possible.”
Most repair work will be done below the road surface, but future lane closures are possible, officials said. Some motorway entrances and surrounding roads remained closed, but traffic police officers were deployed to the area to direct traffic.
The Federal Highway Administration last week allocated $3 million in “quick release” funds to repair the damage and said additional funds were available from its emergency relief program.
Investigators did not provide any information about how the fire broke out. On Saturday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the state fire marshal’s office said they were asking for help finding a “person of interest,” posting two photos on social media showing a man in his 30s with one Orthosis on right knee showing and obvious burns on left leg.
State investigators had identified fire and safety hazards in a rented storage unit under the highway several times before it burned in the fire, documents show. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) released the documents on Friday.
The fire was fueled by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items stored under the highway as part of a program currently under review. Newsom said the state would reconsider the practice of leasing such properties.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a condition of the contract stipulated that no storage of flammable or hazardous materials would be allowed there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.
“This is a dirty, unkempt lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items excluded from the agreement. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and looks like this.”
The owners of two of the businesses that sublet the property said they also warned about the fire risk and other dangers associated with homeless people living under the highway. Newsom previously said that while subleasing can be legal if the company has received permission from state and federal regulators, Apex is not.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex, claiming the company owed $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled next year.
The state’s most recent spot inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but documents released Friday did not provide further details.
Caltrans has “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, particularly those that pose safety risks,” the agency said in a statement.
Mainak D’Attaray, a lawyer for Apex Development, said on Wednesday that the company was not responsible for the fire, adding that the company had not had access to the premises since October.
“Apex leased and modernized the dilapidated shipyard and made significant capital investments during the period it owned the shipyard,” D’Attaray’s statement continued. “Caltrans inspected the premises regularly, at least once a year, and CalTrans was fully informed about the subtenants and their operations. Even the California State Fire Department inspected the premises.”
D’Attaray did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Izzy Gardon, a spokesman for the governor, last week contradicted D’Attaray’s statement that Apex was not at fault. Gardon said Cal Fire believes it was caused by arson “in a fenced area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to enforce rights under the lease.”
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in a camp there were taken to emergency shelters.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.
In this story, the governor’s spokesman’s last name is corrected to Gardon, not Gordon.
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