California DOT postpones freeway project, faces lawsuits

The California Department of Transportation announced Friday that a long-awaited $400 million project to construct new barriers and shoulders along the Long Beach Freeway has been put on hold because of a lack of funding.

The freeway, infamous as a truck-clogged route, has been the site of numerous fatal wrecks that have involved head-on collisions due to vehicles crashing through the old wood and metal barriers and driving into oncoming traffic.

The state DOT currently faces two wrongful death lawsuits from survivors and families of people who died in wrecks involving the median. They say the state should have replaced the barriers years ago. The transportation department could have a few more lawsuits brought against it in the near future for the latest wreck on the freeway, which occurred Oct. 9 when six people were killed after a truck slammed through the median.

Originally, road improvements were supposed to be completed by 2007. The first segment north to the San Diego Freeway is currently being finished, but there were no funds set aside for the rest of the project. Caltrans still hopes to get $18 million to replace the barriers just north of the Santa Ana Freeway. If the money is supplied, construction could begin by the end of 2006.

The problem with the current barriers is they are made of wood and metal instead of steel-reinforced concrete, and were constructed in medians that are 12 to 16 feet wide. State standards for busy highways call for 22-foot medians, with 10-foot-wide shoulders. Most of the freeway has shoulders that are about 8 feet wide.

The current medians were built when the Long Beach Freeway opened in the 1950s to serve as a car commuting route. Today, however, the freeway serves as a congested connector between ports and inland highways. The road carries 15 percent of the country’s seaborne cargo, and that number is expected to triple over the next few years.

According to Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo, coming up with $400 million to complete the project is going to be difficult. Trujillo blames the current lack of funds on fewer federal revenues coming in, combined with the “ebb and flow” of the state’s excise tax.

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California would benefit from an aggressive funding program under the TEA-21 reauthorization, but even that has been put on an extension until early next year.