Pete Wilson showed how a California governor should respond to a highway disaster in LA


Pete Wilson showed how a California governor should respond to a highway disaster in LA

California politics, homepage news

George Skelton

November 20, 2023

Congratulations to Governor Gavin Newsom for getting the damaged 10 Freeway near downtown Los Angeles back into service as quickly as possible. But California’s all-time highway repair champion is still a former governor. Pete Wilson.

Wilson’s record likely showed Newsom the political gains to be made by reopening a broken highway far ahead of schedule.

Fortunately for Newsom and LA drivers, the task this governor faced was relatively simple compared to the horrific multi-freeway disaster Wilson faced after the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake in January 1994.

Wilson’s extraordinary feat came to mind when a Nov. 11 fire under the elevated Interstate 10 forced the closure of the stretch of highway in both directions.

Newsom initially announced that the highway, used by about 300,000 motorists a day, would be out of service for three to five weeks. But a miracle a few days later? he announced it would reopen well before Thanksgiving.

And on Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Alex Padilla Newsom revealed at a highway press conference just after sunrise, also attended by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, that the road would reopen that evening.

He thanked the heroic work of Caltrans and union construction crews who worked around the clock on repairs. He also praised the cooperation between state, city and federal governments.

Okay, but did Newsom initially plan for a much longer closure, only to indulge in heroism when he reopened the roadway much sooner than expected? Yes, perhaps that is too cynical a thought. But being suspicious is ingrained in my work. Anyway, who cares as long as the road is usable?

Beyond that, many people are wondering why the state and city allowed piles of flammable materials, wooden pallets and disinfectants stored during the pandemic to be stored under one of the nation’s most heavily used highways. Homeless people camp nearby and light fires to stay warm. Gee, what could go wrong?

There is a lot of finger pointing. The state fire marshal’s office says it is a case of arson.

One reason I thought about Wilson during the highway closure was that reopening highways ahead of schedule after the devastating earthquake was a highlight of his governorship. But today he gets little credit for it.

That’s because it is far overshadowed in Wilson’s legacy by a low point that soon followed the same year: his aggressive push for Proposition 187, which aimed to cut off public services, including education, to immigrants living here illegally.

Never mind that most voters agreed with Wilson and overwhelmingly passed the measure, which a court later struck down as unconstitutional. Millions of Latino Californians were deeply offended by 187. The Democrats skillfully demonized the Republican governor. And today he is mainly seen in the political world as the man who drove Latino voters into the arms of the Democrats.

But Wilson was generally a quite effective governor, even when he worked with a solidly Democratic Legislature for six of his eight years in office, 1991-



He has certainly faced more natural disasters than any other modern governor: floods, droughts, freezes, wildfires, earthquakes.

The Northridge earthquake caused heavy damage to the freeway, paralyzing segments on Interstate 5, the Simi Valley Freeway and especially the Santa Monica Freeway. The 10

Santa Monica

crumbled in two places: La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan have cut red tape to speed up repair work. Wilson used his emergency powers as governor to suspend state rules.

But Wilson’s main motivation for fast work was old-fashioned capitalism: extra profit for contractors who completed the job in advance.

The profit motive worked particularly well on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Contractors bid not only on how much their work would cost, but also when it could be completed. CC Myers of Sacramento won the Santa Monica


repair contract.

The agreement stated that he would receive a $200,000 bonus for each day the job was completed ahead of schedule, and a $200,000 fine for each day he was late.

The highway was rebuilt in just 66 days, 73 days ahead of schedule, and the contractor received a bonus of almost $15 million.

The bonus idea came from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said Joe Rodota, Wilson’s cabinet secretary. One brainstormer was George P. Shultz, President Reagan’s former Secretary of State.

They reached out, Rodota says. The governor got to work on it.

We were concerned that the contract would be criticized for spending too much, Rodota added. That is why we had an economic analysis carried out. It showed that every day the highway was closed cost the economy $1 million. That keeps the critics quiet.

It cost the merchants along the route a fortune, Wilson recently recalled. They offered a variety of services and people couldn’t reach them. If we hadn’t done what we did, it would have taken God knows how much longer for the highway to reopen.

Wilson did this too: he pressured the Clinton administration to pick up virtually the entire bill. The repair work was done largely with federal money. The governor rejected a temporary state tax increase proposed by Sacramento Democrats.

Before the earthquake, Wilson was trailing badly behind State Treasurer Kathleen Brown in his race for re-election. He won easily in the end.

The post-Northridge cleanup gave him a chance to reintroduce himself to voters, says Dan Schnur, who was then Wilson’s spokesman and now teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

This could give Newsom exactly the same kind of second chance, with Californians starting to wonder if he’s paying enough attention to them.

Newsom would say that politics is the furthest thing from him.

Most drivers don’t care. They are happy to be on the road again.


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