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Caltrans electricians change light bulbs in one of the SR-110 tunnels.

Maintenance and Its Challenges
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 09/2012

“The freeway is literally a concrete testament to who we are, and it continues to structure the way we live. Both the dominant role the freeways play in transportation and their sheer performance have made them the backbone of southern California. They rank with the mountains and the rivers in influencing the organization of a changing city, and uncontestably they are the single most important feature of the man-made landscape,” said David Brodsly, in his 1981 book, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay.

Freeways do play a dominate role in our daily lives as Brodsly points out. With 1,200 lane miles, 9,000 acres of landscape, millions of vehicle miles driven daily, freeway improvements, and some freeways and highways reaching well over the half-century mark in District 7, maintenance is vital.
Safety, Preservation, and Service

Severe cuts to personnel, equipment, and budgets have created many challenges for District 7’s maintenance crews.

In August 2001, there were 1,102 maintenance employees in the East, North, South, West, and Special Crews regions. By August 2012, there are only 817. It is quite possible that there will be additional reductions to the work force.

“It’s getting harder and harder for our maintenance crews to do their job,” said Deputy District 7 Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman. “But no matter what, safety will still remain as our number one priority.”

With the reduced staffing, crews will be primarily focused on safety items such as repairing guardrail, potholes, crack sealing, culverts, and other items that keep the system running and safe.

“Some of our efforts to maintain the appearance of the system such as graffiti abatement, sweeping, landscaping, and irrigation may suffer,” said Freeman.

The size of the work force means there is more work to do, but with less staff and essential resources.

“We have 25 to 30 percent fewer people, so essentially, 25 to 30 percent less work completed,” said North Region Maintenance Manager Bob Vennard. “In the past many of our crews consisted of six to seven people, but now only have two to three employees per crew.”

Increased landscape and roadway due to new construction and additional agencies competing for community service workers makes Maintenance’s job even tougher.

“Ten years ago, the Rosemead Road Crew had a dozen members; now we have three,” said East Region Maintenance Manager Al Sanchez. “We use gang maintenance to maximize efforts and reduce future maintenance, but it continues to get harder and harder to do all that is needed.”

Along with a loss in staff, much of the specialized equipment has been reduced as well, requiring crews to rent vehicles to help complete their duties.

Innovations, Partnerships, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Although maintenance crews have faced many challenges, as a whole, Caltrans has created several ways to increase safety, reduce crew exposure to dangerous freeway conditions, and reduce the need for maintenance via design.

“We are trying different ways to get the work done,” said Freeman. “We have permitted Metro to clear graffiti on I-710 and SR-110, we are working with cities and organizations to sponsor landscaping, and through the Adopt-A-Highway program we have added more groups.”

To increase safety and improve the aesthetics of the freeway, Caltrans has begun to add hardscaping, native and drought tolerant vegetation, concrete center medians (instead of guardrail), and other low maintenance aspects to the freeway system.

“These maintenance-friendly designs help move the maintenance crews six feet from mainline traffic to reduce their exposure to freeway conditions,” said Freeman. “We have even considered using California Department of Corrections inmates to help maintain some of our landscape.”

Right now our crews are in a tough position. “It’s almost like trying to juggle with one hand behind your back,” said Sanchez. But with new innovation and with the potential for maintenance partnerships, our crews will get the help they need to maintain District 7’s transportation system.
 

Maintenance and geology personnel removing rocks from a slope along Topanga Canyon Blvd. (SR-27). Special crew member welding guardrail on the I-10/SR-110/US 101 four-level in downtown Los Angeles. Landscape crew and community service workers clear landscape along I-210.  Bridge maintenance crew assembles a hanging work deck below I-5 Colorado Ave. exit and above the LA River.