The first drivers roared up the newly reopened 405 Freeway at high noon Sunday, honking horns, kicking up roostertails of demolition dust, arms stretched through open windows to wave at no one in particular.
And so the reprieve from freeway traffic ended early, along with the planned weekend closure that had threatened to unleash “Carmageddon” if not for the public’s cooperation.
Contractors had padded the schedule to allow for unforeseen mishaps in tearing down half of the Mulholland Drive bridge before the Monday morning rush, risking enormous fines and public disdain under an international spotlight if they were late.
It wasn’t needed. The demolition went smoothly, enabling contractors to finish about 17 hours ahead of schedule, pocket an extra $300,000 in incentive payments and win acclaim from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials who jockeyed for position in front of television cameras.
“Mission accomplished,” the mayor said, beaming as if he had just won a war.
Much praise was heaped on Southern California drivers who stayed off the freeways and city streets in, perhaps, the greatest show of roadside spirit since easing traffic during the 1984 Olympics. Although L.A. County has added nearly 2 million residents since then, the lack of problems demonstrated that authorities can temporarily sever a major transportation artery without giving the region a heart attack.
“A lot is said about the fact that this is the car capital of the United States,” Villaraigosa said. “Everybody has seen we can get out of our cars every once in a while and survive.”
Some seemed disappointed that the 11 lanes reopened early, threatening to cut short their weekend “staycation.”
“It forced us to enjoy the day instead of jumping in the car and running errands,” said Stephanie Leto, lounging with a friend, her baby and her dog on the grass in Palisades Park in Santa Monica.
“I wish they would do it every weekend,” said Shane Butler of Santa Monica.
Yet others appeared eager to resume life in the fast lane. As a traffic officer removed a barricade to a 405 Freeway onramp, shouts of “Open it up!” rained down from people gathered poolside on the fouth-floor terrace of the Courtyard Marriott in Sherman Oaks. One driver in a Hyundai coupe seemed to be relishing his brief roadway freedom, gliding across all four lanes from the center divider to an exit lane and back again.
Traffic remained light and free-flowing on the northbound 405 Freeway until 4:59 p.m. Sunday, when a collision forced a lane closure, the first post-Carmageddon SigAlert.
Before authorities were done celebrating the weekend’s successful closure, they began strategizing how to coax motorists off the freeways again 11 months from now when the other half of the bridge must come down. It is all part of a $1-billion expansion to add a high-occupancy vehicle lane to the 405 Freeway that connects West Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley.
“We avoided a traffic nightmare,” L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, noting that freeway traffic was reduced by about two-thirds. “Let’s do it again in 11 months.”
Their success could be their undoing next time around. Justin Wong, a 32-year-old Santa Monica College student, shrugged off Carmageddon as mostly hype. “I don’t think people will take what the officials say seriously next time,” he said.
Yaroslavsky had popularized the term Carmageddon, which was widely picked up by the media and captured the imagination of traffic-weary Southern Californians. He and other officials acknowledge that they’ll need to retool their message next time to penetrate media cynicism and the public consciousness.
Dennis S. Mileti, a University of Colorado sociologist who analyzes human behavior around natural and man-made disasters, said media saturation broke through “the clutter of everyday life to reach so many people.”
“It could be different next time when you have Son of Carmageddon,” Mileti said. “It will be a direct consequence of the breadth and depth of media coverage devoted to it.”
The 10-mile freeway closure, lasting about 36 hours, came off without major traffic snarls, worker injury or road rage. Air pollution sensors measured a dip in smog levels. Area hospitals functioned normally, as did Los Angeles International Airport. Eight bicyclists were arrested after failing to resist the temptation to ride on the empty freeway. Police issued tickets to seven other individuals for various infractions.
A small band of protesters unfurled a banner, “L.A. Beyond Cars,” on a nearby overpass to protest the freeway expansion and promote mass transit. Robert W. Vanech, of the nonprofit Rail LA Renegade, said it would be wiser to spend a billion dollars on new rail lines than an extra freeway lane that he said would be quickly filled with too many cars. “As long as our weather is good and our population is growing, we have to radically rethink the way we redesign our transportation and the city,” he said.
But the weekend was about a project in the Sepulveda Pass that is often so traffic-clogged it’s nicknamed the Sepulveda “ImPasse.”
Construction crews began work at midnight Friday. Heavy equipment chipped away at concrete. Acetylene torches cut through steel in showers of sparks. The work continued around the clock, with contractors facing fines of $6,000 for every 10 minutes the freeway remained closed, in each direction, past the 5 a.m. Monday completion deadline.
By sunrise Sunday, the demolition was done. Street sweepers attacked the debris and dust, as workers in hard hats flanked public officials to announce the early reopening.
The contractors had allotted themselves 53 hours to complete the job, with the agreement of transportation officials. By finishing about noon Sunday, the project avoided the $700,000 cost of further shifts and the contractors received their bonus.
Meanwhile, the beach cities along the Santa Monica Bay had lighter than usual crowds for a sunny July weekend. Those who made the trip felt special, as if they had traveled back in time when the region was more sparsely populated.
Sandra Cisneros, 35, was perched on a bench near Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, reading a book. She marveled at the newfound space, the breathing room, on the streets of her adopted hometown. “It’s carefree,” she said. “It’s what L.A. is supposed to be.”
Throughout the region plans had been recast, downscaled to stick closer to home.
Jesse Hendon, 31, of Century City walked to a neighborhood bar Saturday night. He was met by buddies who’d abandoned their cars and arrived by bicycle. It was an eye-opener for his friends, Hendon said. “They were able to bike back, didn’t have to worry about finding a taxi cab at the end of the night.”
Scott Kramer, a Westwood resident, put off going to Century City to fix his eyeglasses. “I love this,” he said, looking at Westwood’s empty streets. But he was bracing for what was certainly to come. “Monday is going to be hell again.”