I-10 press conference
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass speak at a press conference near the damaged portion of Interstate 10. Courtesy of the governor’s office

If any freeway is a cultural icon, it is Interstate 10, which stretches more than 2,460 miles through eight southern tier states, from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica to the Atlantic in Jacksonville, Florida.

Its iconic status is especially evident in Southern California, where it is known by several names as it runs through the heart of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, carrying 300,000 vehicles a day.

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To those who continue the region’s tradition of naming roadways, it’s the Santa Monica Freeway. Traffic reporters refer to it as “The 10.” At one time, there was even a serious movement for Christopher Columbus — before, of course, the explorer became politically incorrect.

By any name, I-10 is an important artery for a region that still depends on autos and trucks to carry people and goods. Its vital role makes it, from time to time, a political lightning rod.

The freeway’s biggest political brouhaha erupted in 1976, when the pavement of one lane in each direction was marked with diamond-shaped symbols and reserved for cars carrying at least three passengers — the state’s first experiment discouraging single-occupant driving. The immediate result was traffic chaos both on the freeway and on nearby surface streets and countless angry drivers.

Although the so-called diamond lanes experiment had been planned during Republican Ronald Reagan’s governorship, Jerry Brown was governor when Caltrans made the switch, just as he was launching his first campaign for president.

Nevertheless, it reflected Brown’s philosophy. “Obviously,” he said that year in a speech, “the ethic of unlimited freeways that attempt to pour cement from one end of the state to the other is over and it takes a while for people to adjust to that.”

Adriana Gianturco, an old college friend of Brown’s who had been an urban planner in Boston, became Caltrans director the same day and had nothing to do with the project, but immediately became its much-despised symbol.

Five months after the diamond lanes experiment began, a judge ruled that it had not undergone a needed environmental impact review and with opposition still raging, the Brown administration quietly dropped it.

Eighteen years later, in 1994, I-10 once again became the center of political attention when the Northridge Earthquake seriously damaged the elevated structure. Although many other public facilities were also damaged, I-10’s central role made repairs a priority.

Then-Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency and the state hired a construction firm from the Sacramento area, headed by a larger-than-life builder named C.C. Myers, to rebuild the freeway with huge financial incentives for rapid completion. Myers’ crews worked around-the-clock and finished repairs 74 days ahead of schedule, earning a reported $200,000 a day bonus. The tab doubled from $14.9 million to $30 million, but it was worth it since closure of the freeway was costing the local economy an estimated $1 million a day.

I-10 is back on the front pages because a suspicious fire in pallet storage yards under the freeway — arson, officials said — damaged the structure so badly that it was closed off.

The fire put Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass on the spot to get the freeway fixed and back in operation as quickly as possible. During a Monday press conference, Newsom estimated that repairs would take three to five weeks. Then on Thursday, he announced there was less damage than originally thought, and the key artery would reopen Tuesday, before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Newsom and Bass deflected suggestions that the homeless camps next to the pallet yards might have been responsible for the fire but the suspicion adds to the already raging public anger over such camps.

The I-10 countdown begins again.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.