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On the afternoon of Sunday, December 23, 2012, when many people were finishing up last-minute Christmas shopping or spending time with their families, Resident Engineer Vladimir Gurfinkel was out on the new I-5/SR-14 direct HOV (high occupancy vehicle) connector, a structure so close to completion you could almost hear the traffic on it. Temperatures had hit record lows, a frigid wind had picked up, and the threat of another rain storm loomed.
But this was no time to retreat to the construction office. This was crunch time, time to do final inspections of signage and striping and reflectors, time to scrutinize every inch of the structure. The entire project was still months away from completion, but Vladimir and the rest of the construction team, including Senior RE Fred Young, were pushing hard to get this vital piece of it — the highly anticipated HOV connector — open before Christmas.
A couple weeks later, on January 11, 2013, Caltrans marked the opening of the connector with an official ribbon-cutting event attended by elected officials, representatives from transportation agencies, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, and local media.
“We wanted to open the connector in time for Christmas and New Year’s travel,” said Gurfinkel. “The opening date was not specified or stipulated by the contract. Caltrans and the contractors [MCM Construction and Security Paving, a Joint Venture] partnered up and worked around the clock in difficult weather conditions to get it done. We opened the connector on December 23, just in time for the holidays.
The new connector enables motorists in the carpool lane to transfer between I-5 and SR-14 without leaving the carpool lane. Benefits include improved safety, reduced congestion and better air quality. It also brings Caltrans one step closer to creating a seamless carpool lane system in District 7, which is sorely needed, given that 354,000 motorists use the interchange every day.
But that dry, fact-sheet description doesn’t begin to capture the ‘wow’ factor. The HOV connector is 15 stories tall, nine football fields long, and arcs so gracefully and seemingly effortlessly it’s hard to believe it’s made of thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Stand beneath it beside the massive supporting columns and look up, and even if you have no mathematical aptitude and failed high school physics, you suddenly want to be an engineer. But getting to this point was no easy feat.
The project went through a rough patch early on when work first began in the summer of 2008. Caltrans and the contractors were learning how to work together, and suffice it to say, there were some issues that needed to be addressed before an effective partnership could emerge.
"We were committed to understanding each other’s issues and resolving them at the lowest possible level,” said Gurfinkel. “That allowed for a complete and successful resolution of all issues, and we were able to get back on track and build an outstanding partnership.”
That strong partnership was crucial in meeting the many challenges the construction team would face. If you were looking for a miserable place to build a towering concrete structure, you couldn’t do much better than the I-5/SR-14 connector location. It’s smack dab in the middle of the Newhall wind tunnel, next to a railroad, in an environmentally sensitivity area, plagued by problematic access, and over I-5 — the backbone of the state’s freeway system — which meant closure windows were very tight.
And then there was (surprise!) soil contamination caused by naturally occurring oil. It wasn’t completely unexpected — Caltrans knew about low-level contamination that required no action. But the hillside had a dirty little secret. As excavation progressed, it quickly became clear that the problem was worse than anticipated, a change order in the making. The contaminated soil had to be safely disposed of, air quality monitored, and additional funding secured.
Crews are currently finishing up the final details: striping, signage, drainage and some electrical work. The project is scheduled to wrap up in May (though possible change orders may require a bit more time). After five years in construction, this vital link in Southern California’s transportation infrastructure will serve Californians for generations to come — thanks in large part to the efforts of a construction team that embraced every challenge they encountered and found a way forward.
Eventually, the contamination challenge, like all the others this project hurled nonstop at construction staff, was overcome and the team forged ahead, building not only the connector, but multiple other improvements as well. The project also added 1.8 miles of 24/7 HOV lanes (for two-person-plus carpools) to the interchange area; constructed major (and pretty amazing) retaining walls; and widened the West Sylmar overhead bridge, the Sierra Highway undercrossing, the southbound I-5 truck route undercrossing, and the mixed-flow connectors between I-5 and SR-14.