Is there light at the end of the water main?
Come the end of July, beleaguered residents of Trousdale Estates may be able to bid a final good riddance to the cavernous trenches, jarring jackhammers, impromptu road closures, and ever-so-occasional water and power outages that have resulted from an extensive water main replacement project.
Since late October, the city’s Public Works Department has been replacing 14,300 feet (as much as 20,000 feet, according to some measurements) of aging water mains along large portions of Loma Vista and San Ysidro drives and repaving those streets from curb to curb. Crews are currently inching their way up Loma Vista, from Doheny Drive to Evelyn Place, bringing with them noise, traffic, trenches, and outages. Work on San Ysidro Drive will start the week of July 19.
However, the herculean undertaking is just over 75% finished as of press time, with 10,000 feet of mains already replaced, according to Derek Nguyen, project manager for the Beverly Hills Public Works Department. City staff and crews from the Oxnard-based contracting firm Toro Enterprises are “working very hard” to finish the remaining 25%–or roughly 2700 feet–by the end of this month, Nguyen told the Courier.
But before residents go joyriding along free flowing, freshly paved, two-way streets, they should note that that is only an optimistic estimate. “The contractor has until Aug. 11 to finish their work,” Nguyen said. “Internally, we like to finish earlier, but there’s a lot of challenges along the way on a major project like this.”
Buried under Loma Vista Drive, where all Toro’s construction has taken place so far, is a maze of electric, cable, and phone lines around which crews need to tiptoe.
In some areas, there are not one but two separate systems of water pipes tangled into this Gordian knot, and crews need to replace both.
“There are all kinds of surprises all the time,” Dann White, the project superintendent with Toro, told the Courier. “If you drive around in any of the higher rent neighborhoods, it’s typical you don’t see stuff overhead, so you don’t see power lines up in the air, telephone poles, it’s all underground, and that neighborhood in particular is very busy underground.”
Before any excavation can take place, California law requires crews to work with the nonprofit Underground Service Alert of Southern California (also known as DigAlert) to identify anything that might get in the way of their path of travel. They must also coordinate with SoCal Edison, AT&T, Spectrum, and other companies to make sure there’s no interference.
Crews have also run into issues when sometimes antiquated city records don’t match the reality on, or rather under, the ground. This has resulted in some haggling between the contractor and the city to revise plans.
“There’s been a lot of changes,” White said.
All told, White estimates that various discrepancies and unforeseen events set the project back roughly a month. Still, he is fairly confident that the construction will be finished by the original Aug. 11 deadline, because he is adding another crew of roughly 20 workers starting July 12. By that point, three total crews will be on the Trousdale project.
If the work is not complete by Aug. 11, the city could charge Toro $500 a day in what are known as “liquidated damages,” especially if it feels that the delay is due to laziness or negligence.
“Any loss is damaging,” White said when asked if he felt his firm could withstand those fines. “We go in with a certain percentage on these jobs, and if we don’t meet that percentage, it’s a loss.”
White also said that the project has more or less stuck to its budget of $10,223,829, though he declined to get any more specific than, “We’re doing okay.”
On July 14, 2020, the Beverly Hills City Council selected Toro, the second lowest bidder out of seven competing firms, to complete a water main replacement and street repavement project on Loma Vista and San Ysidro drives. According to a city staff report, most sections of the water mains were between 60 and 90 years old, resulting in frequent breaks over the years. In July 2018, for example, a water main break cost $605,500 in damages and overtime pay. The mains were made out of cast-iron, a material no longer used for mains, that had corroded over time and reduced the overall carrying capacity.
Loma Vista Drive was cited as a particularly important area to carry new and efficient mains because its mains connect to critical reservoirs and pump stations.
“This is a critical pipeline because it runs through one of the major water systems in our city,” Nguyen said. “It provides water to half of our reservoir which then provides water to half of our city, so in essence this is the backbone to half of our city’s water infrastructure.”
The city designated the area from Loma Vista Drive from Evelyn Place to Doheny Drive, and San Ysidro Drive from Tower Road past the intersection with Pickfair Drive for its renovations. Work takes place on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. The city conducted an extensive public outreach campaign before the construction started, including public meetings, ads, mailers, website information, physical signage, and changeable message boards, according to Chief Communications Officer Keith Sterling.
But perhaps no amount of warning could fully prepare residents for the disruptions the construction would cause. First, there is the noise and the traffic. Large portions of entire lanes were routinely blocked off during construction, causing significant backups.
“Even trying to come out of my house some days, it’s like Russian roulette, because I don’t know if one side of the street is a one-way and I’m going into traffic,” a Loma Vista Drive resident who asked to remain anonymous told the Courier.
The seeming randomness of lane closures stems from pipelines that meander from one side of the street to another in order to avoid existing utilities, Nguyen said.
But the routes and methods of traffic control, which is provided by the contractor, are approved ahead of time by a Public Works inspector, and lane closures and other delays inspector, and lane closures and other delays are posted online and in the Public Works Commission monthly meeting agenda.
Even when the lanes are open, deep trenches along the side of the road are covered up by metal plates, resulting in a patchy street and a bumpy ride.
Last but certainly not least: the outages, both expected and unexpected. Once a portion of the water main is complete, the nearby residents (this includes the side streets off Loma Vista and San Ysidro) have their water shut off from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. while crews shut off the old main and connect the new one. Residents receive three days advance notice, according to Sterling.
The work may have played a role in causing two AT&T outages, and possibly a Spectrum outage, though that is all unconfirmed and under review. Toro and the city coordinate regularly with other utility companies to make sure no one steps on the other’s toes, but that can sometimes fall through.
On Feb. 8, an AT&T conduit near the intersection of Loma Vista and Doheny was damaged during construction, resulting in an outage that lasted several days and affected Loma Vista Drive and many of its surrounding streets. On Feb. 10, the city notified affected residents that landlines would be restored between Feb. 13- Feb. 19.
The Courier reached out to AT&T and Spectrum for more precise details on other outages that may have occurred due to the water main construction. An AT&T representative said that service was interrupted for parts of Beverly Hills on May 25 due to a cable cut made by a third party.
White said that Toro is currently in a claims process with AT&T to determine who was at fault and who should be held liable.
“There’s state guidelines that tell us that we have a pothole within so many feet of lines, and if we can’t find that line, then we have to call [DigAlert] and say we can’t find that line, but sometimes our disputes are say the guy marked a line four feet here, and we’re over here, and we come across their system,” he said, describing a hypothetical situation. “Maybe they didn’t show a deviation in the street with their paint marks, and we didn’t see it, so there’s a claims process that gives us the opportunity to show our pothole documentation and our photos, and we may agree to disagree, and then it becomes a negotiation over who is going to pay for it and how much we’re paying.”
When asked if any of the outages could be at least partially attributed to Toro crews, White replied, “Yes, the guys make mistakes. I would be absolutely lying to you if I said Toro didn’t make mistakes. We make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes.”