Fire-damaged freeway is open

Repairs completed weeks ahead of original estimates

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, enjoys a moment with Sen. Alex Padilla and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, while meeting construction workers at the I-10 freeway, which was closed by an underpass fire on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 19. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, Pool)

LOS ANGELES -- An elevated Los Angeles freeway that closed for more than a week because of an arson fire is expected to reopen ahead of today's morning commute, a day earlier than previously announced and weeks ahead of the original estimate, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Sunday.

The Nov. 11 blaze, fed by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company's lease, shut a mile-long stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown, snarling traffic as repair crews worked around the clock. Officials had said last week that all lanes were expected to reopen by Tuesday but moved it up to today after significant progress.

Newsom said recent safety inspections showed the span was safe to start reopening Sunday evening and that the freeway would be "fully operational" before today's rush hour.

"It wasn't just speed that we were after. We wanted to make sure this thing was safe," Newsom said at a news conference, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

There will be periodic closures in the coming weeks or months as repairs continue, officials said.

State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it burned in the fire, documents show.

The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, released the documents Friday. Investigators said Saturday they are seeking help locating a "person of interest" and released two photos in a "crime alert notification" on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and apparent burn injuries on his left leg.

Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although one condition of the contract stipulated that it not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.

"This is a filthy unmaintained lease," inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items barred by the agreement. "This area has been utilized since the mid-1970s and looks like it."

Owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they also had warned of a fire danger and other hazards related to homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subleasing can be legal if the company received permission from state and federal regulators, Apex did not.

In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying it owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled next year.

The state's most recent spot inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found "numerous lease violations."

Caltrans had "informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those creating safety hazards," the agency said in a statement.

Mainak D'Attaray, an attorney for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company is not to blame for the fire, adding the company has not been able to access the premises since October.

"Apex rented and improved the rundown yard and made substantial capital investments during the period that it had possession of the yard," D'Attaray's statement added. "Caltrans inspected the premises periodically, at least once a year, and Caltrans was fully aware of the [subleases] and their operations. Even the State of California's Fire Marshall inspected the premises."

No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.

Information for this article was contributed by Sophia Tareen of The Associated Press.