California Urban Fire: Gavin Newsom’s Third-World Governance

A highway fire near a homeless encampment shows more third-world incompetence on the part of California’s government.


ast Saturday, an early-morning blaze near a Los Angeles homeless encampment quickly engulfed the I-10 freeway. It burned with such intensity that it closed one of the nation’s busiest interstates, the primary route linking the sprawling city’s Eastside with its more famous beaches.

The fire has also threatened the already dicey reputations of two of California’s most prominent officials.

It took 150 firefighters eight hours to knock down the fire, even with assistance from a helicopter typically reserved for sprawling wildfires.

In a press conference held mere hours after the fire began, Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass said the I-10 would be closed “indefinitely.” Yesterday, in a new statement, they said it will reopen before Thanksgiving. I’ll believe it when I see it. Either way, the pair are surely hoping for a vindication of government action. In a press conference earlier this week, Mayor Bass referenced a past, similar incident. Then as now, government officials illuminate the path forward. From disaster will come the apportioning of guilt and then prosperity. In yesterday’s statement, Newsom was eager to credit “federal and local partners” for their excellent work. Newsom is, of course, overstating the record of California government. But Bass’s Orwellian historical revisionism ought to concern us more.

“For those of you that remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans worked around the clock to complete emergency repairs to the freeways,” Bass told reporters in the first press conference. “This structural damage calls for the same level of urgency and effort.”

She’s right on some facts. Following the 1994 earthquake and months of around-the-clock work, the I-10 was indeed reopened quickly. But Caltrans, the state agency charged with road maintenance and construction, had nothing to do with that modern miracle. That honor goes to then-governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, and to C. C. Myers Inc., a private-sector engineering firm.

For an accurate account of that event, it’s worth quoting Wilson at length, from his 2005 Wall Street Journal commentary:

In early 1994, a major earthquake (measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale) jolted the residents of greater Los Angeles from their slumbers and knocked houses off their foundations. Within seconds, the Northridge earthquake reduced to rubble the overpass bridges of Interstate 10, Los Angeles’ major east-west artery, and thereby instantly shut down the most heavily trafficked freeway in the world. I was advised that it would require some two years and two months to repair the bridges and restore the I-10 to use. For as long as it remained unavailable, it would mean not only driver inconvenience on a dramatic scale, but delays that would translate into economic dislocation conservatively estimated to cost $600,000 per day. The interruption to the life of the nation’s second largest city would be of a plainly intolerable magnitude and duration.

Instead, we completed the repairs and reopened the freeway to its normal heavy traffic in just 66 days. How? We did two things.

First, Wilson says:

I quickly exercised the extraordinary emergency powers conferred upon the governor of California by the state Government Code. I suspended the operation of statutes and regulations which would have required the protracted public hearings called for before environmental impact reports could be filed and acted upon, and suspended other normally demanded procedural hurdles. The elimination of these legal requirements drastically reduced purposeless delays that would have impeded recovery and compounded the injury inflicted by the quake . . . .

Second, we took a page from the book of private-sector incentives for accelerating performance. We told contractors bidding to repair the bridges that they must submit bids that specified not only the cost but the date of completion, and that they must agree to an added condition: For every day they were late, they would incur a penalty of $200,000; and for every day they were early, they would be rewarded with a bonus of $200,000. The winning bidder, C. C. Myers, Inc., put on three shifts that worked 24/7. In order to prevent any delay in the work, they hired a locomotive and crew to haul to Los Angeles steel sitting on a siding in Texas. Myers made more on the bonus than they did on the bid. Incentives work. The reward to the contractor in this instance was well worth the reward to the public in achieving restoration of critical infrastructure two years early.

A Republican governor with confidence in the free market — not a state agency notorious for its bungling — is what Wilson could call, even as recently as 2005, “the Californian Way.” But that was then. Today, of course, “the Californian Way” is to promise progressive policy innovation that will inevitably fail and will (just as inevitably) lead to calls for more government and more government spending. In California, the answer to the failures of progressivism is always more progressivism.

“The problem with Caltrans, a union-run government agency that can only outsource a maximum of 10 percent of its work, is complacency and inefficiency,” says former state senator John Moorlach, now a senior fellow at California Policy Center. Thanks to Caltrans, he adds, “California has spent $501,136 per state mile of new highway construction — more than three times the national average — and $102,889 per mile on maintenance, nearly four times the national average.”

Despite all that money — and union contracts that severely limit Wilsonian outsourcing — “California ranks near the bottom in every category of road construction and maintenance,” Moorlach says.

That’s Caltrans, the hero in Bass’s retelling of history, and the basis for her assurance that all’s well. If the freeway is indeed open in time, it would end up the exception that proves the rule of California government incompetence.

The Problem Is Capitalism

In government disasters like this one, the Newsom playbook requires a quick pivot toward attacks on capitalism itself. When wildfires sweep through California with the seasonal predictability of Peak Fall Foliage in the Berkshires, you can count on Newsom to identify the cause: climate change driven by “dog-eat-dog capitalism,” he’ll tell you.

Following the I-10 debacle, Newsom speculated that the real cause was a shady business operating illegally on a sliver of land beneath the freeway.

“We’re in litigation, their lease has expired and we have been aggressive in addressing concerns as it relates to the lease itself,” Newsom told reporters. He added that the business “subleased the space . . . with multiple subleases, that’s part of the litigation posture.”

But — and here’s the irony — that tangled chain of leases and subleases runs all the way up to (hold, please) Caltrans. Caltrans earns some revenue by leasing unused land to businesses, businesses such as the one that Newsom believes is responsible for the fire.

It now appears that Caltrans failed to monitor its land-lease project, perhaps because it was busy not building and maintaining state roads. The Los Angeles Times described the Caltrans property beneath the I-10 this way:

With a generator, his cellphone and a portable toilet, the 49-year-old immigrant from Michoacán, Mexico, worked alongside a dozen others operating small businesses in spaces they rented between the concrete columns holding up the interstate. They were mechanics, truckers, garment suppliers, recyclers and pallet distributors, struggling to get by in the region’s economy. They paid rent to a Calabasas businessman who leased the land from Caltrans and, according to court records filed by the agency, illegally sublet it to them at far higher rates.

An attorney for that north Los Angeles County company, Apex Development, said his client isn’t responsible for the fire. He said the likelier problem is the homeless encampment just outside its fence.

“It is unfortunate that Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass have used this incident to speculate and mischaracterize Apex and its principals as ‘bad actors’ to excuse their own failures to adequately address the public safety issues caused by the unhoused,” attorney Mainak D’Attaray told the Los Angeles Times in an emailed statement.

Nothing to See Here

Early reports noted that the fire started in the homeless encampment, one of hundreds like it around Los Angeles that Newsom and Bass have promised to clean up. But Bass told reporters there is “no reason to assume the reason this fire happened was because there were unhoused individuals nearby.” When reporters pressed Newsom on the presence of a homeless camp at the origin point of the fire, he finally said grudgingly, “I am intimately familiar with this site” of the fire.

“This site”? How “intimate”? The thick smoke of his language begs for detail.

In August 2022, Newsom and other officials performed a theatrical cleanup of the encampment, saw everything they had accomplished, and, behold, they declared it was very good. It was proof, Newsom said in a press release, of “the successful state effort” to end homelessness and, therefore “a model for the nation.”

Clearly, that cleanup was something less than “successful.” And if there’s a “model for the nation” here, it’s likely one that proves its opposite: Whatever California does, your state is likely to do very well when it does precisely the opposite.

Ignoring that failure, Newsom has done what Newsom always does: He blamed anonymous business interests.

But always looking for silver linings in progressive failure, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times found one. The headline says it all: “The 10 Freeway closure is an opportunity to make public transit shine.”

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