The day the 405 stood still: Closing L.A.'s busiest freeway
By Alison Hewitt July 08, 2011 Category: Campus News
Related: How UCLA is preparing
In the city that never walks, construction work is about to close a 10-mile stretch of Los Angeles' 405 Freeway — by some measures the busiest freeway in the country — for an entire weekend.
Future Sunset Blvd. bridge over I-405.
Traffic is expected to be terrible.
Politicians, police and celebs such as Ashton Kutcher are all warning people to stay off the road — all roads, if possible, not just those near the closure. They're repeating traffic analysts' predictions of 25 to 30 miles of gridlock radiating up and down the 405 from the closure area unless 70 percent of the usual traffic stays away. The project may be best-known by its nickname, Carmageddon.
"It will be an absolute nightmare," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
For UCLA, nestled in between Wilshire and Sunset boulevards and less than a mile from those two streets' major 405 freeway ramps, Carmageddon is more than academic. A UCLA news program airing on KCET starting Wednesday, July 13, at 8 p.m., explains why the 405 is shutting down and what's being done about it.
Why close the freeway
The 405 closure is part of a $1 billion freeway-widening project that will continue until 2013. The 50-year-old-freeway isn't just aging, it's also heavily used: The Federal Highway Administration's latest report, from 2009, shows the 405's Los Angeles-to-Santa Ana stretch is the busiest highway in the nation, with an average of 374,000 vehicles daily.
Among other improvements to the 50-year-old freeway, the project will complete the northbound carpool lane and improve many on- and off-ramps, adding capacity and easing congestion, according to Metro. Once complete, the carpool lane will stretch 48 miles, from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley. Combined with its 97-mile southbound sibling, it's the longest in the country, according to Caltrans.
During Carmageddon, Metro will begin to demolish the Mulholland Drive Bridge, an 80-foot-tall, 578-foot-wide span whose support columns hem in the freeway, blocking the widening project. The Mulholland bridge design, with no center support, makes it unsafe to pound away at the concrete structure while cars travel underneath, so officials made the difficult decision to divert all 405 traffic during the tear-down. Because only one direction of the bridge will be torn down, the remaining side of the bridge will reopen to drivers immediately after Carmageddon — but it also means that next year, the closure will happen all over again to tear down the westbound side.
Over the July 16-17 weekend, a massive hoe-ram will chomp through the south side of the bridge, letting debris free-fall onto a 5-foot-deep carpet of dirt that will protect the roadway. Asphalt and concrete trucks will stand by to make any emergency repairs to guarantee the road's opening for the Monday morning commute, Metro officials said.
Metro has taken steps to ensure that their contractor, Kiewit Pacific Co., is as eager as the 405's hundreds of thousands of drivers for the freeway to open on time, said Metro spokesman Dave Sotero. If Kiewit runs late, Metro will fine them $6,000 per side of the freeway every 10 minutes.
"The media will be broadcasting the status of the opening throughout the weekend," said Metro's executive director of highway projects, Doug Failing. "However, we have no reason to believe that we won't be open by 5 a.m. We will."
Avoiding the area
If this were anywhere else, detours would simply lead cars off the freeway, around the bridge, and back on a mile later. But in the Sepulveda Pass, there are no detours that can accommodate 500,000 weekend drivers.
The Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau and countless other agencies have joined Metro's campaign to get the word out far and wide and limit traffic. To avoid spillover traffic, a Metro map recommends wildly out-of-the-way detours, such as a seven-freeway, 50-mile route from the San Fernando Valley to LAX, compared to the usual 18-mile route on 405.
LAX has its own page of advice about how to navigate, and Metro plans to make several of its buses and subways free to encourage public transit use. Freeway signs as far up as the Oregon border already warn drivers about the closure and delays. The LAPD is setting up more than 20 mini-divisions radiating out along a 25-mile stretch of the 405, with pre-positioned police, fire, medics, tow trucks and traffic officers in each division, said LAPD spokesman Lt. Andy Neiman. There will also be motorcycle paramedics and a strike team of motorcycle police to ensure emergency responders can navigate through dense traffic quickly, Neiman said.
In a serious emergency, the empty freeway could be useful, Neiman said.
"The plan is not to use the freeway at all, but if there was some dire catastrophic event — say a brush fire broke out — we have contingency plans to use the freeway," he said. "We also have access to some of the ramps. If needed, an ambulance could use the freeway to bypass traffic." Air ambulances can also use several pre-designated helicopter landing spots, including some on the freeway, if needed, he added.
Along the 405, weddings and bar mitzvahs have been canceled, residents plan to stock up on groceries, and major institutions like the Getty Museum and the Skirball Cultural Center plan to shut down.
At UCLA, shutting down is not an option: With a major hospital to run, summer camps to attend and petri-dish experiments to keep alive, university officials expect 8,000 to 10,000 people on campus. Hundreds of hospital employees will keep Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center running smoothly, extra traffic officers will staff campus intersections to prevent gridlock, and UCLA police will patrol the campus and head the campus's Emergency Operations Center, which UCPD is activating as a precaution. Anyone who can avoid UCLA is strongly advised to do so.
"We don't know exactly how many challenges we'll face, but we want to be open just in case," UCPD Chief James Herren said. "It's a multi-departmental approach. We'll have barricades in place and traffic officers controlling traffic, so we'll be able to get emergency vehicles through. I think it will be manageable, and it's a great opportunity to practice our emergency plans."
Getting the news out to everyone ahead of time is the linchpin of preparations.
"The messaging is the most important part of this plan," Neiman said. "Getting the public to be part of the solution is really key. We want people to avoid the area and stay close to home. Stay local, play local, shop local. We're not saying you can't drive. Just don't drive in the 405 area."
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