A Los Angeles elevated freeway closed for more than a week due to an incendiary fire reopened before Monday morning commutes, at least a day earlier than previously announced and weeks ahead of the initial estimate.
“Welcome back, Los Angeles!” Mayor Karen Bass posted late Sunday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The Nov. 11 blaze, fueled by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company's lease, closed 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 Tuesday, but moved that up to Monday after significant progress.
Governor Gavin Newsom said recent safety inspections showed the span was safe to reopen Sunday night and the freeway would be “fully operational” before Monday's rush hour.
“We weren't just chasing speed. 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 Bass.
Officials had initially said it could take about 250 workers between three and five weeks to cover 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 a day 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 highway, which cuts through the heart of the metropolis from east to west and connects to other major highways.
Padilla estimated that initial repairs, which are expected to be covered by federal funds, will cost $3 million.
State investigators repeatedly found fire and safety hazards at a leased storage facility under a Los Angeles elevated freeway before it went up in flames, documents show.
The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, released the documents Friday. Investigators said Saturday they were seeking help identifying a “person of interest” and released two photos in a “crime alert” on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and apparent burns on his left foot. .
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.
Although investigators have not said how the fire was started, the fire was fueled by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items stored under the freeway as part of a little-known program that is now under scrutiny. Newsom said the state will reevaluate the practice of leasing land under roads to bring in money for mass transit projects.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a term of the contract said it did not allow flammable or hazardous materials to be stored there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and noted years of problematic conditions .
“This is a filthy unmaintained lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oil, fuel and other items prohibited by the agreement. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and it looks like it.”
The owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they had also warned of a fire hazard and other risks associated with homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subletting can be legal if the company is licensed by state and federal regulators, Apex was not.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying it owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled for next year.
The state's most recent site inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “multiple lease violations,” but the documents released Friday did not elaborate.
Caltrans had “advised Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those that create safety hazards,” 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 has not had access to the premises since October.
“Apex leased and improved the derelict yard and made significant capital investments during the period it owned the yard,” D'Attaray's statement added. “Caltrans inspected the facilities periodically, at least once a year, and CalTrans was fully aware of the sublessees and their activities. Even the California State Fire Marshal inspected the facility.”
D'Attaray did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Izzy Gordon, a spokesman for the governor, last week disagreed with D'Attaray's statement that Apex was 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 claim rights under the lease.”
Brandon Richards, another Newsom spokesman, echoed the governor's directive to Caltrans to conduct a comprehensive review of all leased sites under the state's highways. Richards did not address whether anyone at Caltrans faces discipline.
No injuries were reported from 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.