On April 29 San Francisco Bay Area residents awoke to the news that two key highway connectors on heavily traveled Interstate 80 near the Bay Bridge had collapsed in a gasoline fire. Throughout that Sunday, the local media projected that the connectors would be down from five months to a year, and that traffic in the East Bay would be the gridlocked indefinitely.
Instead, over the next week traffic flowed fairly smoothly on I-80 and around the East Bay. More important, within days, the California Department of Transportation had demolished the damaged structures and was well on its way to replacing one of the connectors (I-80 to Interstate 880) by May 13 and finished repairing a second connector (I-80 to Interstate 580) late Thursday - months ahead of the most optimistic projections.
What went right? The Governor's Office and Caltrans' leadership took five actions that have led this transportation project, known as the "MacArthur Maze rebuild," to avoid the indecision, delays, and cost overruns of other infrastructure projects in California over the past decade.
(1) Immediate response: Within hours of the fire, Caltrans' engineering staff was on site, moving forward on emergency response procedures. Caltrans is a highly routinized and professional bureaucracy. In this case, the transportation professionals were allowed to proceed without interference by local politicians. By Sunday night, demolition was already under way, and a plan of evaluation and repair/rebuild formulated. Additionally, even before the early Monday morning commute, Caltrans had traffic control and detour systems in place.
(2) Contracting expedited with private firms: The state contracting process usually takes months to bring an engineering or construction firm on board. On Sunday, the governor invoked emergency procedures, and several contractors were brought on within days. Caltrans advertised bids for the multi-million dollar rebuilding contract Thursday, May 3, and had a contractor chosen by the following Monday.
(3) Putting people (and highway users) first: From the start, the Caltrans leadership identified the priority as getting the connectors back in use safely for the 80,000 daily trips made on these connectors. Caltrans committed senior experts on a dedicated basis and back-filled their normal responsibilities for the duration of the crisis. Further, Caltrans respected the need of its highway users to plan travel times and avoid delays. It provided real-time information and constant updates of traffic conditions on I-80, and the timetable for improvements.
(4) Increasing transit options during the rebuilding: Increasing transit use - the long-term mobility goal for the region - was not forgotten in the rush to rebuild. Caltrans assembled a conference call with the region's major transit operators mid-day Sunday and each of the following days. The governor eliminated fares on transit for Monday, and the rail, bus and ferry systems all increased service levels. Ridership on the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) increased by 30,000 trips the first day and was above 15,000 trips by the end of the week.
(5) Incentives in contracting for expediting the rebuild: The rebuilding contains financial incentives for speed. For every day the contractor finishes the I-580 rebuild prior to June 27, it will receive $200,000. A disincentive of $200,000 is applied for every day the project is delayed past June 27. As the Santa Monica Freeway rebuild (after the 1994 Northridge earthquake) showed, financial incentives can have dramatic impacts in expediting public works projects, while still meeting safety requirements.
Over the past decade, California government too often has seen an either/or debate regarding the relative merits of employing a public- or private-sector workforce to deliver needed improvements. The MacArthur Maze rebuild shows that there are major roles for each in critical transportation projects. California is embarking on an unprecedented transportation investment fueled by the $19.9 billion in Proposition 1B passed last November. The MacArthur Maze as a case study has lessons in professionalism, results over process and public/private partnerships applicable to upcoming projects.
Michael Bernick is a Milken Institute Senior Fellow in regional economics. Ed McSpedon is a licensed civil engineer and business executive with HNTB, a national engineering firm.