It’s Carmageddon all over again

The plot is identical to last summer’s Carmageddon: Can Los Angeles avoid a traffic apocalypse as officials shut down a 10-mile stretch of the country’s busiest freeway for the weekend?

The same characters are back, too: The politicians warning of potential trouble, the road crews racing the clock, the residents fighting their instincts to get in their cars and drive somewhere, anywhere.

Carmageddon II: An article in Section A on Sept. 30 about the closure of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass said there were hundreds of doctors at the Skirball Cultural Center for a conference on treating allergies. About 120 people attended the conference on asthma and allergies. Also, the last name of conference organizer Cathy Pollak was misspelled as Pollack. —

But big-budget sequels rarely deliver on their hype, and by late Saturday, almost halfway through its run, Carmageddon II appeared to be no exception. Barring an unexpected twist, the redux will end like the original. City brass will declare victory and Southern Californians will crowd the freeways once again for their Monday morning commutes.


PHOTOS: Carmageddon II: The sequel

“Let me thank Angelenos for a job well done — so far,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a news conference Saturday afternoon. He encouraged them to leave their cars parked at home.

Not long after he spoke, the plan went briefly off-script when a section of the overpass being dismantled fell unexpectedly. After a quick assessment, officials issued a statement that the incident was “not a cause for concern” and should not cause a delay.

The closure of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass this weekend is part of a $1-billion, four-year project that includes adding a northbound carpool lane.

Nearly all of the work has been done without having to shut down the roadway for more than a few hours at a time. But when it came to demolishing the Mulholland Drive bridge — an 80-foot-high overpass that has to be rebuilt to make room for the extra lane below — that was not an option.

So engineers came up with a plan. The southern side of the bridge was torn down in a single weekend last July — the first Carmageddon — and rebuilt over the last year. Now it’s the northern side’s turn.

The clock for road crews started at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, leaving them 53 hours to complete the job.

The contractor in charge faces a stiff penalty if the work isn’t finished on time — $6,000 per lane for each 10 minutes past the deadline. That’s $360,000 an hour if the entire 10-lane highway stays shut down.

From an overlook just south of the demolition zone Saturday afternoon, Michael Francis, a Caltrans engineer who has overseen much of the road-widening project since it started in 2009, nodded approvingly as chunks of debris fell from the bridge. A cushion of dirt protected the freeway below.

“Look at how that machine moves,” he said, smiling. “Its hand munches concrete.”

“To finally see this milestone makes my hour-and-a-half drive every day seem worth it,” he said.

About 200 people were working on the site at any given time.

According to plan, the 405’s northbound lanes were closed between the 10 and 101 freeways and the southbound side between the 101 and Getty Center Drive — and will remain closed until 5 a.m. Monday.

On a typical weekend, 500,000 cars use that section of freeway. Closing it has broad implications for the flow of traffic throughout the region.

A Caltrans official said Saturday that traffic around the city was moving normally for the most part. Of course, normal can be frustratingly slow and unpredictable. The 405 was sluggish where cars were being diverted on to the 10, and surface streets near the freeway closure were occasionally clogged.

“You would have thought they would have stayed home,” said a traffic officer at the backed-up intersection of National and Sepulveda boulevards in Culver City.

Still, it wasn’t too hard to reach the Skirball Cultural Center, which sits alongside the 405 Freeway several hundred feet from the bridge work. In one auditorium, hundreds of doctors gathered for a conference about treating allergies.

The organizer did worry about getting home. “I don’t know what it’s like out there,” said Cathy Pollack, who had no trouble getting there at 6 a.m.

In a nearby courtyard, staff was setting up tables, lights and arcade machines for a bar mitzvah celebration.

Clifford Rowe, father of the boy of honor, said his family considered rescheduling when they learned about Carmageddon but ultimately decided that “life is tough, so let’s just go for it.”

“One person canceled,” he said. “But now four more people are coming because they canceled their plans to go out of town.”

At LAX, taxi driver Bhvad Vanghali described Carmageddon as “no big deal.” He said he would happily take people to the San Fernando Valley.

At the Emergency Operations Center, a downtown command post where officials were monitoring the situation and reporters were at the ready to tweet and blog, agency spokespeople at times seemed bored. Some played games on their phones.

No traffic nightmares were developing, and certainly no Carmageddon.

That term stuck after County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky used it in anticipation of last year’s closure. It became part of a massive effort by officials to scare people into staying in their neighborhoods. Not doing so, they warned, could result in traffic jams stretching from San Diego to the Central Valley.

None of the potential disaster came to be. The air cleared over West L.A. and Santa Monica. Record numbers of people rode the Metrolink commuter train system. And the freeway opened Sunday afternoon, 17 hours ahead of schedule.

Villaraigosa dubbed it Carmaheaven.

This time, consultants warned officials to tone down the rhetoric, that crying wolf might only work once.

So while there has been months of advertising leading up to this weekend, as well as official warnings to stock your car with food and water in case of traffic jams, the central message has been to spend the weekend discovering the joys of public transportation or your own neighborhood.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was advertising half-off general admission to anybody who rode a bike, walked or took the bus.

Closing the freeway was also recast as a stimulus plan for local businesses.

In Sherman Oaks, at the Blue Dog Beer Tavern, a white banner advertised the “Carmageddon Burger.” Nearby, a Whole Foods Market hosted a Carmageddon II pancake breakfast.

A block away, near a highway entrance ramp, 7-year-old Matthew Sanders manned a lemonade and cookie stand while his parents held a garage sale. By 9 a.m., they had already made several sales, including that of an old Italian bicycle they’d been trying to get rid of for a year.

“People are cutting through here, so we figured we’d take advantage of it,” Jill Sanders said.

One plot twist could come Sunday morning. Venice Boulevard was scheduled to be shut down from the beach to downtown, along with parts of Fairfax Avenue, for the Herbalife Triathlon Los Angeles. About 2,500 athletes were expected to fill the streets.

Still, it might be difficult to squeeze much more drama out of Carmageddon II.

Morgan Land, a screenwriter from Hancock Park who was spending Saturday at the Grove and staying off the roads, summed up his thoughts like this: “I’d give Carmageddon II two stars just for satisfying the audience.”

Times staff writers Frank Shyong, Matt Stevens, Wesley Lowery, Hailey Branson-Potts, Martha Groves, Adolfo Flores and Eryn Brown contributed to this story.