LOS ANGELES (News21USA) — An elevated Los Angeles freeway closed for more than a week due to an arson fire is expected to reopen before Monday morning commute, a day earlier than previously announced and weeks ahead of the original estimate, said California Governor Gavin, Newsom said Sunday.
The Nov. 11 fire, fueled by flammable materials stored under the road in violation of a company lease, closed a mile-long stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown, snarling traffic as crews Repair worked 24 hours a day. Officials had said last week that all lanes were expected to reopen on Tuesday, but moved it up to Monday after significant progress.
Newsom said recent safety inspections showed it was safe to begin reopening the stretch Sunday night and that the freeway would be “fully operational” before rush hour on Monday.
“We weren’t just looking for speed. We wanted to make sure this was safe,” Newsom said at a news conference, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, US Senator Alex Padilla and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
Authorities had initially said about 250 workers could be needed in three to five weeks to shore up the span after the fire burned about 100 support columns.
“This is a great day in our city,” Bass said Sunday. “Let me thank everyone who worked around the clock to make this effort a reality.”
There will be periodic closures in the coming weeks or months as repairs continue, officials said. An estimated 300,000 vehicles a day use the highway, which runs east-west through the heart of the metropolis and connects to other major highways.
Padilla estimated that initial repairs, which are expected to be covered with federal funds, would cost $3 million.
State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety risks at a rented storage space beneath an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it burned in the fire, documents show.
The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, released the documents on Friday. Investigators said Saturday they are seeking help locating a “person of interest” and posted two photos in a “crime alert notification” on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his head. right knee and apparent burns on the left leg.
The photos were released by Cal Fire and the state fire marshal, whose office is investigating the fire but did not say how it was identified.
While investigators have not said how the fire started, the blaze was fueled by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items stored beneath the freeway under a little-known program that is now under scrutiny. Newsom has said the state will reevaluate the practice of leasing land under highways to generate money for mass transportation projects.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a condition of the contract stated that it did not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and noted problematic conditions during years.
“This is a dirty, unmaintained lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection uncovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items prohibited by the agreement. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and it appears that way.”
The owners of two of the businesses that subleased the property said they had also warned about fire danger and other dangers related to homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subletting may be legal if the company receives permission from state and federal regulators, Apex did not do so.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying it owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled next year.
The state’s most recent inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but documents released Friday gave no further details.
Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those that create safety risks,” the agency said in a statement.
Mainak D’Attaray, an attorney for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company is not to blame for the fire, adding that it has been unable to access the facility since October.
“Apex leased and improved the deteriorating yard and made significant capital investments during the period it owned it,” D’Attaray’s statement added. “Caltrans inspected the facilities periodically, at least annually, and CalTrans was fully aware of the subtenants and their operations. Even the California State Fire Marshal inspected the facility.”
D’Attaray did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Izzy Gordon, a spokesperson for the governor, earlier this week disagreed with D’Attaray’s statement that Apex is not to blame. Gordon said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) believes it was caused by an arson “in a fenced area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to enforce rights under the lease.”
Brandon Richards, another spokesman for Newsom, reiterated the governor’s directive for Caltrans to conduct a comprehensive review of all leased sites under the state’s highways. Richards did not mention whether anyone at Caltrans faces disciplinary action.
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment were taken to shelters.