Moving the spaghetti of utilities under Sepulveda Boulevard

Bonnie Verdin loves spaghetti, although she wishes she saw less of it during her work day.

Verdin is not a chef. For the I-405 Improvements Project, her title is Supervisor, Third Party Administration. But when she thinks of the tangle of underground utilities that must be moved to construct the project, she sees pasta.

“There’s a huge amount of utilities under this project,” she explains. “They resemble spaghetti under Sepulveda Boulevard. And we’re shifting Sepulveda east in some locations. And when you shift, you have to shift the utilities, sewers, water lines, etc.”

As an example, she describes the area near the Getty Center as having “multiple utilities and limited space.” Engineers refer to underground utilities as subsurface infrastructure. Under any name, Verdin has discovered it’s a challenge for project designers to create a utility corridor that holds everything.

Verdin has coordinated the relocation of utilities for large transportation projects since her work on the Metro Orange Line and Gold Line Eastside Extension. She has been working in third party administration (“third party” being other government organizations and the owners of utilities) since 1993. She has worked on the I-405 project since its inception.

Because of the menu of utilities within the project boundaries — she estimates that there are 24 utility owners impacted — this project will be her greatest challenge. Add to that the government jurisdictions with a stake in those utilities, and Verdin sees more spaghetti.

“Utility relocation can be a major threat to the schedule,” she explained. “So we have to design and relocate the utilities within the contractor’s aggressive time line.”

What are the utilities under the 405 and the Sepulveda Pass?

From left, consultants Philip Roupas and Ed Castaneda, Bonnie Verdin and Alvin Trotter.

Shell, Chevron, Exxon and Mobil each have oil pipelines through the pass. SCS Energy has a natural gas pipeline to UCLA. There are fiber optics lines. Southern California Gas Company and Southern California Edison bring gas and electricity to their customers through the pass.

Verizon and ATT connect residences and business via the Sepulveda Pass, and the Metropolitan Water District has a 96-inch-diameter water line under Sepulveda Boulevard.

Some of those utilities run along and through the three bridges to be replaced—Sunset, Skirball and Mulholland—complicating their demolition and reconstruction.

Verdin, whose training was in food nutrition science, began as the only third party administrator on the I-405 project, but she has since been joined by Alvin Trotter, third-party administrator, and consultants Philip Roupas and Ed Castaneda.

“Our days are typically consumed by meetings, fielding questions and finishing the issues that spring from those meetings,” Verdin summarizes. Her major task is to reach agreement on a design and alignment that hold all these utilities.

Art Correa, Caltran’s design manager on the project, suspects that the Sepulveda Pass holds so many utilities because it offered the best, most direct path from Los Angeles and the South Bay into the San Fernando Valley, an area that has seen an explosion of residential and commercial growth for the past 65 years. “Fresh water comes to the Sepulveda Pass from the north, and oil products come from the South Bay to the north,” he says.

Working on a Caltrans-owned project means Verdin and her staff must play utility detectives to discover who is responsible for paying to move a utility. This varies from Metro projects, where the transportation authority pays for all utility movement.

During preliminary engineering, Caltrans identified what utilities it thought would be affected by I-405 construction. Following subsequent investigations, that number has more than doubled.

“Especially when you’re working on old streets, you’re bound to find surprises,” Verdin has learned. “It’s a bit of a challenge for everyone, including the utility owners themselves.” Investigators have discovered utilities as old as the 1950s within the project area.

Verdin sees diplomacy as the biggest piece of her role. “You have a contractor with a job to do, to achieve a schedule, but sometimes we have to advocate for the utilities to ensure that the utilities have the information they need. To proceed, you constantly have to reach resolutions.”