July 14, 2011 -- "Carmaggedon" is almost here—and Los Angeles is on tenterhooks.
The much-ballyhooed shutdown of a 10-mile stretch of the 405 freeway--used on a typical weekend by half a million motorists-- starts at midnight Friday and continues until early Monday. In a city where walking is weird and public transportation an afterthought, the closure has sparked anxiety and generated huge publicity.
It has its own Facebook page, the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Widening Project, and Twitter-savvy celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Tom Hanks have tweeted to warn drivers to stay home.
"Avoid Carmageddon, Gas-zilla, 405-enstein, Grid-lock-apalooza! STAY HOME. Eat & shop local! Hanx," urged Hanks. Kutcher, a regular tweeter, joked: "LAPD askd me 2tweet: 405fwy btwn 10 & 101 will b closed July16-17. In xchange I would like a free pass on that stoplight tickt IT WAS YELLOW."
As Hanks' tweet shows, Twitter is awash in punny names for Carmaggedon, which was coined by a radio personality—like "autodammerung" or "carpocalypse."
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the closure area, has a countdown clock on his website anticipating the shutdown to the second.
He is planning on spending much of the weekend in the emergency operations center downtown. "I think the preparation has gone extremely well," he said. "Most people understand that the guaranteed way to avoid aggravation is to not be in your car."
He said LA residents are organizing block parties and barbecues and are stocking up on DVDs for a weekend staycation. "Everybody's going to do it their own way."
Residents are being offered some creative alternatives to driving on the 405--one of the busiest freeways in the U.S. and famous nationwide for the police chase of O.J. Simpson, who was suspected of murdering his wife, in 1994 along its route. Jet Blue on Wednesday announced two flights from Burbank to Long Beach, a distance of 34 miles. Ticket price: a low-budget $4 each way for a round-trip traveller. They sold out in three hours.
"It's definitely our shortest flight ever," said Jet Blue spokesman Mateo Lleras. "We wanted to find a way to alleviate that congestion and help our customers."
Those who don't want to fly have other options: the red, purple and orange subway lines are free of charge, as are selected bus lines.
The 53-hour closure--which will happen again in 11 months-- is part of a $1 billion highway improvement project that involves constructing a northbound carpool lane and reconstructing the Mulholland Bridge.
Officials have been grave about the prospect of misery ahead. "There's gridlock on the 405 virtually any time of the day, but particularly during the rush hour, and if you think it's bad now, let me just make something absolutely clear: On July 16 and 17, it will be an absolute nightmare," LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a recent press conference.
But yesterday Yaroslavsky was more upbeat. "Now it's up to the people," he said, adding: "I have confidence in Los Angeles motorists."