Maze could reopen sooner than expected 

The portion of the East Bay freeway charred in an explosion three days ago will likely be repaired rather than demolished and replaced, significantly shortening the time the heavily used road remains closed, state transit officials said Tuesday. Preliminary test results on 3- to 4-inch samples of southbound Interstate 880 — conducted to determine the level of fractures inside — are expected as early as today, and will give officials an idea of repair costs and when the interstate can reopen.

"It doesn’t look right now like we’re going to have to replace it," Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus said. "We might have to do some straightening, but it looks as if the actual structure is OK despite the scorching."

If repairable, I-880 would need to be repaved and the columns and girders reinforced before it reopens.

Officials, however, said the interstate would likely have to be closed again during construction of the eastbound Interstate 580 overpass, which was destroyed and demolished after Sunday morning’s explosion.  



Early Sunday morning, a gasoline tanker traveling on the connector between eastbound I-80 and southbound I-880 slammed into a guardrail, causing 8,600 gallons of unleaded gasoline to burst into flames.

The intensity of the fire, which reached up to 2,750 degrees, caused 750 feet of the elevated eastbound I-580 overpass above to buckle and slam down on the southbound I-880 connector.

The crash shut down two major portions of the MacArthur Maze, an interchange of three separate freeways used by 75,000 drivers every day accessing the Bay Bridge. Caltrans workers have been working around the clock to determine the extent of the damage. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to accelerate cleanup and rebuilding efforts, and legislators are expected to tour the site Friday.

If I-880 is determined to be beyond repair, it will have to be replaced along with the portion of eastbound I-580 above, for which there is still no cost estimate. Initial reports said a shortage of steel would hinder construction of I-580, but Kempton said Tuesday that a "flexible design" is being developed to allow contractors to use more readily available steel that he said was just as safe as heavier-duty steel.

The former I-580 overpass was constructed of heavy-duty steel that is more difficult to obtain than common structural steel, which is mixed with concrete and used in projects from skyscrapers to backyard patios, Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said.

"There will be no safety implications, no durability problems, it just means we’re going to give the contractor more leeway in how they can get the job done," Caltrans Director Will Kempton said.

While it remains unknown how much repairs to the Maze will cost, Kempton said Tuesday that costs associated with the tanker crash have already climbed to $8.8 million, including $4.3 million for the demolition of the collapsed I-580, $2 million for the interstate closures and $2.5 million for Monday’s state-sponsored free public transit.

The Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the state’s application for emergency funds. Kempton said he was optimistic the federal funds would be granted.

arocha@examiner.com

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