Design/Build and Caltransâ€™ Future: Tales from the I-405 IPO
I-405 Sepulveda Pass Widening project team does not curb their enthusiasm for this new way of building a freeway.
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At the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Widening Integrated Project Office (IPO), it’s all about, well, integration: of various Caltrans divisions; of transportation agencies; and of all the above with the contractor, Kiewit Pacific.
“It’s a real partnership and we all work together,” said Jon Hamaguchi, Caltrans Structures IQA (Independent Quality Assurance) Manager under the Division of Engineering Services (DES). Based in Sacramento, Hamaguchi works at the IPO three days a week, where he and the DES staff perform technical support for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), the lead agency on the $1.4 billion project to construct roughly 10 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane on the northbound San Diego Freeway (I-405) in West Los Angeles from the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) to the Ventura Freeway (U.S. 101).
It also will remove and replace the Skirball Center Drive, Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive bridges; realign 27 on and off-ramps; widen 13 existing underpasses; and construct approximately 18 miles of retaining and sound walls. Preliminary construction began in spring 2009; completion is expected before the end of 2013.
The I-405 Sepulveda Pass Widening project is being constructed under a design/build contract. Design/build is a method of construction and project development allowing a single entity to provide both design and construction through a single contract between the agency and the contractor. It evolved from the opinion that many construction projects could be more cost-effective if they were implemented faster.
Hamaguchi is one of a core group at the IPO, located off I-405 by the Howard Hughes Promenade near Culver City, who discussed their experiences working on the district’s first design/build project with Inside 7 at their one-year move-in anniversary. Roughly 30 Caltrans employees are deployed there. “A typical day consists of constant interface with Design and Construction staff and meetings, meetings, meetings,” he said. “It’s a tough adjustment for the staff because it’s a lot different than what they’re used to dealing with.”
And that might be one of the biggest advantages to working on this project. Design/build could be the wave of the future, he said. The Department has 10 such projects planned statewide over the next 10 years; two of those are in District 7. Since it’s such an unusual process, those who already have design/build experience will have valuable skills that could become much in demand.
“We’re inventing the wheel as we go,” said Construction Chief Allan Tanjuaquio. “Caltrans has the highway construction experience, but not the design/build. Metro has the design/build experience, but not the highway construction. Mike (Metro Project Manager Michael Barbour) assembled the team in such a way that all the different agencies involved are working as one entity, one team, one project.”
When the Caltrans team first moved in, it was a little rough because roles were undefined, Tanjuaquio said. But now the pieces all fit together. “And the great thing here is the people, who are experienced and totally dedicated. The day doesn’t end at 3:30.” In fact, he added, sometimes the day barely seems to end at all. “We’re still on our cell phones, Blackberries and laptops at night and on weekends, working on the project.”
The project is divided into three segments: Wilshire Boulevard; Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive. Steven Zaw, Sixto Ramin and Ramon Robillos are the Segment Resident Engineers assigned to each of the segments, respectively. Since the project is in the design investigation and preliminary construction stages, these REs and their staff spend most of their long hours reviewing and commenting on the various design/build submittals, of which there are currently 500. All three REs agreed that being part of the design builder’s "over-the-shoulder" process, review and development ensures that work will be performed in accordance with Caltrans Standards.
Hadi Moradi, structures representative for the Mulholland segment of the project, said one of the best aspects of the work is that it’s an interactive process where “you are in constant communication with the contractor and the designers. But if you don’t come with an open mind, you’re going to have a problem.” The other structures representatives are Amir A. Hassoun on Wilshire and Richard Hauck on Sunset. Michael M. Francis is the Senior Bridge Engineer for the project.
Associate Environmental Planner Liz Suh, who also works at the IPO three days a week, said that the design/build experience has been a good one. “Environmental has rarely had a chance to be part of construction and it’s exciting that we’re able to see a project develop,” she said. “It’s given me a new way to look at how we address our environmental issues.”
Design Manager Art Correa took the excitement theme one step further, calling the project “one of the most exciting I’ve worked on in all my 30 years with Caltrans.” Correa did qualify that it required a “paradigm shift” as well as a willingness to work 12-15 hours a day. “Outside of that, it’s been fun,” he said, adding that the design team consists of seven employees at the IPO and “a lot of support from downtown, including the freedom to handle the project.”
George Malacalza is the project’s Senior Resident Engineer and is no stranger to I-405 HOV lanes, having been RE along with then-Senior RE Tanjuaquio on the $50 million southbound lane from Sunset Boulevard to I-10, completed in 2007. Malacalza has three REs and six inspectors working with him, but the number of staff will increase as with the workload. The construction team currently is working on utilities inspection, striping, K-rail installation, potholing (the practice of digging a test hole to expose underground utilities to ascertain horizontal and vertical location) and temporary MVDS (Microwave Video Detection Systems—Tanjuaquio noted that there are so many acronyms on this project that the segment REs had to make an index to track all definitions).
“The best thing about this process is that we can expedite the work so that the public can have the benefit of the project sooner,” Malacalza said. “That also means that everything needs to be done yesterday.” To keep up with the pace, it is necessary to work well with other agencies. “Relationships are key.”
Whatever the challenge, the entire project staff insists they are not only up to it but also up for it. The consensus, one year into the project, is that it is a learning opportunity worth the long hours and the adjustments. “On this job, you can never say ‘This is how we normally do it,’” Tanjuaquio said. “There is no normal.”