09.28.12

Los Angeles Area Girds for Carmageddon II Freeway Closure

Starting Friday, crews will start construction work along Interstate 405, the nation’s most congested freeway. Will the project live up to its apocalyptic name—or go as smoothly as the first Carmageddon 14 months ago?

Transportation and law enforcement officials are gearing up once again for this weekend’s closure of a 10-mile stretch in Los Angeles of Interstate 405, the nation’s most congested freeway, for the second time in 14 months. The big question is, will this year’s Carmageddon II, finally live up to its apocalyptic name?

“I think there is a general consensus that there will be more traffic congestion, but how bad it will be is anyone’s guess,” said Metro spokesman Dave Sotero. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”

Starting Friday evening, a small cadre of construction workers will begin the task of tearing down and rebuilding the north side of the 80-foot-tall Mulholland Bridge. Besides clearing storm drains, installing new raised pavement markers, and removing graffiti, part of the plan is to widen the freeway to make room for a northbound carpool lane through the Sepulveda Pass over the Santa Monica Mountains. Once it is finished, the 70-mile carpool lane will stretch from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley. “It is the last part of the 405 that doesn’t have a carpool lane,” said Sotero. “When it is done it will be the longest continuous carpool lane in the country, if not the world.”

The $1-billion dollar Sepulveda Pass Improvement Project, which is supposed to take 53 hours, will wrap up Monday morning at 5 a.m., just in time for the morning commute.

Although gridlock never materialized last year for Carmageddon I, authorities are concerned that drivers will not heed the repeated warnings, and travel over the weekend—causing the catastrophic problems that were predicted last year.

“We don’t want drivers to become complacent and think that the coast is clear and they can get on the freeway because it is a cake walk,” said Sotero. “We are to an extent victims of our own success. It only takes a small incident to create a sig alert of epic proportions.”

Last year, the forecast for the mother of all traffic jams was so dire that city officials enlisted the help of celebrities to spread the message. Tom Hanks, William Shatner, and Demi Moore were among the information pushers. “This weekend, LA! Avoid Carmageddon, Gas-zilla, 405-enstein, Gridlock-apalooza!” Hanks tweeted to his 2.2 million followers. “STAY HOME Eat & shop local!”

Carmageddon I, however, was considered a major success. The freeways to Mexico did not become giant parking lots as predicted. Hospitals did not become graveyards because staff members couldn’t get to work. Nor did motorists abandon their vehicles on the freeways or get involved in one gigantic road-rage brawl. The freeways, along with many surface streets, were virtually abandoned.

Construction work even finished 17 hours earlier than anticipated. By the end of the weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa jokingly changed the name to “Carmaheaven.”

The biggest annoyance was pesky television helicopters buzzing incessantly over west side neighborhoods.

After Carmageddon I, Villaraigosa asked UCLA’s School of Public Affairs  to analyze the traffic impact of Carmageddon I. “It showed that traffic was down really dramatically on the approach routes,” said Professor Emeritus Martin Wachs. “It was about 60 percent below a normal weekend in the summer… For Carmageddon I [city officials] were aggressive and direct, but the media exaggerated the likely outcome of the closure. Reporters were saying that traffic would be as far as the Mexican border. It was truly absurd. We actually found decreases as far as 80 miles away.”

Carmageddon II, however, is a different animal, transportation authorities say. There is more work to be done, because two sets of bridge columns must be removed, compared with one last year. The demolition work also is predicted to be more complicated because of inactive utility lines. And Metro officials say it is unlikely there will be an early finish to the work. Complicating matters is that school is back in session, and there is a triathlon, as well as two 5 km runs scheduled for the weekend.

“I think the perception is that [Angelenos] aren’t taking it as seriously,” said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Denise Joslin. “People did stay off the highways last year, but that shouldn’t give members of the community cause to have a fun day of it because they think traffic can be light. We still run the risk of congestion.”

Joslin said CHP has bumped up its staff, particularly near the on- and off-ramps, so pranksters don’t try to gain access to the deserted freeway. Last year, a group of merry pranksters set up a dining room table and took photos of themselves drinking a bottle of champagne in the middle of the freeway. In another instance, a woman who called herself Adventure Girl drove along the freeway and even passed a CHP cruiser stationed at an entrance. The clip, which made it to YouTube was called “Adventure Girl Takes on Carmageddon 405.”

“We don’t want drivers to become complacent and think that the coast is clear and they can get on the freeway because it is a cake walk.”

“There were a couple of isolated incidents,” said Sotero. “Persons involved publicized what they did and it looked like the CHP wasn’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. Just the perception they can go and do a photo op sent the wrong message, and it is a safety risk. There will be a lot of maintenance work in the area and it is very unsafe for anyone to try to have a YouTube moment. The CHP has stated publicly that they will arrest anyone who puts a toe on the 405.”

Although public officials have held numerous press conferences, issued public service announcements, and posted Carmageddon information on their websites, the message hasn’t been as calamitous, and that is exactly the point, says Wachs.

Wachs, who co-authored the report for the mayor’s office, said they recommended a more softer approach to Carmageddon II. “Instead of saying this is going to be a nightmare, public officials are saying we did this thanks to your cooperation and if you do this again we will have an easier time,” he said. “The message is more gentle. It is a human thing, and people react to information they are given. If the information is flawed it results in different behavioral patterns.”

“There is a short conclusion where we speculate that vigorous warnings that appeal to fear will likely be considered like the boy who cried wolf, and by the third time the boy cried wolf no one paid attention.,” he added. “It could actually happen if everyone doesn’t listen to the warning so there could be a traffic jam. We believe that a message emphasizing fear is not an effective messaging strategy, because it was the first message and there was no gridlock and people know that.”

Comedian Brett Walkow, who made a spoof of Carmageddon last year, said he noticed the message wasn’t as intense this year and the press was hinting that no one was paying attention to the warnings. So, he decided to do his part to keep Angelenos off the road.

Walkow said the YouTube video, Carmageddon II—Carmageddon Strikes Back, an homage to classic MTV 1980’s and ‘90s music, in which he directed, starred, and wrote, received more than 280,000 views in its first four days on YouTube.

“The subject behind the first one was total anarchy,” said Walkow. “The second one is you better listen up. I grew up in Los Angeles and I dread the 405.  It could be a total mess because people don’t listen. L.A. people think they’re invincible and we can do anything we want.”

He added: “It’s my ode to Los Angeles, in a way. Stay home and have a holiday.”

Instead of Angelenos getting into their cars, Metro is hoping they will use the county’s 87 miles of rail lines or 200 bus lines to explore the city. They have partnered with more than 300 businesses that are giving 10 to 50 percent discounts during the closure if you take public transportation. Also doing their part to keep people off the roadways is a group of Los Angeles artists that started a website, artmageddonla.com, that highlights hundreds of activities at museums and theaters, as well as spots where you can go see organ recitals and acrobatics in Long Beach.

“We saw an opportunity to focus on art happening in L.A.,” said artist Diana Wyenn. “The last time it happened, people really did stay home and in their neighborhood. We saw this as a way to stay in the neighborhood and engage in art over the weekend.”

Just in case, Carmageddon becomes a traffic nightmare, the Los Angeles Fire Department is dispatching a five-person motorcycle unit outfitted with a defibrillator, small fire extinguisher, medical supplies, and a GPS system to monitor the roadways. “They are being deployed in incidents where we see there is a critical need,” said Chief Armando Hogan. Hogan says he thinks Carmageddon II will be as anti-climactic as the first. “It’s kind of like, been there done that,” he said. “Once we know it is doable, there is a higher level of confidence. I think it will be more of the same. We don’t anticipate a big challenge. We are cautiously optimistic.”