Apodaca: 'Carmageddon' reminds us to be grateful

It's at times like this that I remember why I left Los Angeles for Newport Beach.

This weekend our neighbors to the north are living through the freeway-widening project commonly referred to as "Carmageddon." It's one of those "only-in-L.A." moments when the city's dysfunctional infrastructure is exposed to even greater scrutiny, scorn and ridicule than usual.

I am, of course, referring to this weekend's shutdown of a section of the San Diego (405) Freeway from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley, during which the Mulholland Bridge will be partially demolished as part of a $1-billion plan to add a new carpool lane.

During the past several weeks, predictions of mass gridlock have swamped the media. Residents have been pummeled with information about alternate routes, pleaded with to stay off the roads if possible, and warned to expect epic delays.

Some of the more hysterical prognostications have been ripe for parody. In the Los Angeles Times, revered columnist Steve Lopez lampooned the mania with information on ways to cope with the expected logjams, including hot-air balloons, blimps, catapults, burro rides and crisis centers staffed with personal traffic planners and life coaches.

My favorite was a comic in The Times that depicted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arguing about which surface streets to take.

In Newport Beach, we've gotten in on the act by offering our lovely community as a weekend destination for Angelenos desperate to escape the whole mess.

As reported in the Daily Pilot earlier this week ("Newport Beach markets itself as an escape from 'Carmageddon'"), the local travel bureau Visit Newport Beach has spearheaded a marketing campaign aimed at luring L.A. traffic refugees. Several hotels joined in, plugging special weekend deals.

I expect I'm not the only Newport resident hosting weekend guests. My brother, who lives in West Los Angeles, is here for a few days, as is my older son, who attends UCLA and has an apartment nearby.

My son probably doesn't remember, but traffic is a big reason we left L.A. nearly 15 years ago.

I was working for The Times, and had a horrendous commute that caused me so much stress I suffered regular bouts of heart palpitations. My husband's drive was even worse. But it was when my son started school that the situation became completely untenable.

Our neighborhood public school was in pitifully poor shape, so we managed to enroll him in a better school several miles away. But to get him home in the afternoons while I was still at work, I had to hire a shuttle service called — I kid you not — Kids' Limo. Every day I would anxiously await a call from my nanny, who was watching my younger son, to assure me that my older boy had arrived safely.

It was a crazy way to live, and it didn't last long. I applied to The Times for a transfer to Orange County. The day after it was approved we found a house in Newport, where we'd heard that the schools were great and the living was easy. I had a 10-minute commute. The palpitations stopped.

I don't mean to sound smug. There are many things I still miss about L.A.: the La Brea Tar Pits, Canter's Deli, Will Rogers State Park, great restaurants and museums, a thriving entertainment scene, eclectic neighborhoods and interesting people.

But would I move back? Not a chance.

Now that my son is living in L.A., he's learning for himself how tough it can be. He'll sometimes call me while he's driving — a hands-free call, naturally — with something along the lines of, "I'm on Santa Monica Boulevard and it's not moving. Is there another way I can go?"

The irony is that this weekend might not be so bad. In L.A., expectations often have an uneasy relationship with reality, so maybe Carmageddon will be more fizzle than frenzy.

Indeed, many observers have pointed out that predictions of mass gridlock during the 1984 Olympics proved wrong. A decade later, L.A. staged a surprisingly fast and impressive recovery after the Northridge earthquake caused buildings and freeways to collapse.

By the same token, the ultimate goal of the 405 Freeway project — to ease congestion on one of the most heavily travelled stretches of road anywhere — might also fail to materialize.

Some traffic experts have warned that after a short period of relief following the completion of the project, the freeway will likely revert to the same clogged condition as before. That's a lot of hassle for a temporary fix, but hey — that's L.A.

Newport Beach isn't perfect. People who live on Balboa Island, the peninsula and in Corona del Mar, put up with some dreadful parking problems during the summer and on holidays. Traffic on Coast Highway can be brutal. Those who commute to points north, east and even south can face L.A.-like freeway crawls.

Yet for every flaw, we've got a dozen reasons to thank the stars that we live in this beautiful, relatively tranquil place.

When L.A. returns to its usual snarled, chaotic, gummed-up state, I'll be remembering once again why I choose to live here.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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