LOS ANGELES (AP) — An elevated Los Angeles freeway closed for more than a week because of an arson fire is expected to reopen ahead of Monday morning’s commute, a day earlier than previously announced and weeks ahead of the original estimate, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Sunday.
The Nov. 11 blaze, fed by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company’s lease, shut a mile-long stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown, snarling traffic as repair crews worked around the clock. Officials had said last week that all lanes were expected to reopen by Tuesday, but moved it up to Monday after significant progress.
Newsom said recent safety inspections showed the span was safe to start reopening Sunday evening and that the freeway would be “fully operational” before Monday’s rush hour.
“It wasn’t just speed that we were after. We wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” Newsom said at a news conference, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
Officials had initially said it could take about 250 workers between three and five weeks to shore up the span after the blaze burned about 100 support columns.
“This is a great day in our city,” Bass said Sunday. “Let me thank everyone who worked 24 hours to make this effort happen.”
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 freeway, which runs east-west across the heart of the metropolis and connects with other major highways.
Padilla estimated the initial repairs, which are expected to be covered by federal funds, would cost $3 million.
State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it burned in the fire, documents show.
The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, released the documents Friday. Investigators said Saturday they’re seeking help locating a “person of interest” and released two photos in a “crime alert notification” on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and apparent burn injuries on his left leg.
The photographs were released by Cal Fire and the State Fire Marshal, whose office is investigating the blaze but did not say how he was identified.
While investigators have not said how the fire was set, the blaze was fed by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items being stored under the freeway under a little-known program that now is under scrutiny. Newsom has said the state will reassess the practice of leasing land under roads to bring in money for mass transportation projects.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although one condition of the contract stipulated that it not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.
“This is a filthy unmaintained lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items barred by the agreement. “This area has been utilized since the mid-1970s and looks like it.”
Owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they also had warned of a fire danger and other hazards related to homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subleasing can be legal if the company received permission from state and federal regulators, Apex did not.
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 spot inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but the documents released Friday didn’t elaborate.
Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those creating safety hazards,” 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 the company hasn’t been able to access the premises since October.
“Apex rented and improved the rundown yard and made substantial capital investments during the period that it had possession of the yard,” D’Attaray’s statement added. “Caltrans inspected the premises periodically, at least once a year, and CalTrans was fully aware of the sublessees and their operations. Even the State of California’s Fire Marshall inspected the premises.”
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 arson “in a fenced-off area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to assert rights under the lease.”
Brandon Richards, another Newsom spokesperson, reiterated the governor’s directive for Caltrans to conduct a comprehensive review of all leased sites under the state’s freeways. Richards did not address whether anyone at Caltrans is facing discipline.
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.