Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Carmageddon" watch in full effect

LOS ANGELES -- A 10-mile stretch of one of the nation's busiest freeways has turned into a virtual ghost road.
Interstate 405, known in the region simply as "the 405," is normally so clogged that locals like to joke that its name is shorthand for "traffic that moves no faster than 4 or 5 miles an hour." It is, says CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker, "the vehicular bloodline connecting the San Fernando Valley to the L.A. basin."
It was closed for 53 hours for a major construction project beginning early Saturday that will test whether this car-dependent city can change its driving habits for a weekend.
Crews systematically began closing on- and off-ramps beginning Friday evening. At midnight Saturday, an entire 10-mile section was shut down.
For weeks, authorities have urged residents to avoid getting in their car, lest they trigger what's been hyped as "Carmageddon."
Such an event could back up vehicles from the 405 to surface streets and other freeways, causing a domino effect that could paralyze much of Los Angeles.
Officials estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, traffic jams could stretch as far as 64 miles, Whitaker reports.
With warnings having been broadcast through television, radio, social media and flashing freeway signs as far away as San Francisco, many of the city's nearly 4 million residents appear ready to stay off the roads.
Evening rush-hour traffic was light in the hours before the shutdown on Friday. Motorists took to Twitter to marvel at the rare sight of traffic maps showing a sea of green, indicating that traffic was flowing.
"Carmaggedon? More like carmaheaven. No traffic in L.A.," tweeted Chip Dorsh, who said he breezed through a canyon road to get from his job in Culver City to the San Fernando Valley.
"When I left work, it was like a no man's land," Dorsh later told The Associated Press.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he thinks traffic will move smoothly if motorists if they take advice and stay close to home throughout the weekend.
"We can either say we survived Carmageddon or we survived the Carmageddon hype," he said.
But officials agree the real test will come as the day unfolds on Saturday.
If people heed the warnings, there will be no shortage of staycation activities or adventures awaiting them.
They can snag free cotton candy at the Santa Monica Pier or drop in on Michael Jackson's dermatologist for 25-percent-off Botox injections so that frazzled commuters won't look quite so frazzled.
Those who do want that real road warrior look might consider swinging by T-Man's Tattoos (located just off the 405) in the San Fernando Valley.
"If you come on in and mention you're in town because you're stuck from Carmageddon, you can get 15 percent off tattoos and piercings," proprietor Howard Teman said.
A few planned to take discounted helicopter rides over the empty stretch of the 405, several dozen others have $4 to $5 tickets to board special JetBlue flights between Long Beach Airport and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The airline, seizing on the national buzz about Carmageddon, offered the deal this week by calling the short, 20- to 30-minute flights a "planepool" between the San Fernando Valley and the coastal city.
Tickets sold out within three hours.
The flights inspired a group of cyclists to challenge JetBlue to a race. Members of the Wolfpack Hustle planned to peddle on a roughly 40-mile route starting near the Burbank airport to see whether they or a JetBlue passenger will reach Long Beach first.
Cycling advocates said they hope to show that gridlock can be avoided without using a car or plane.
"Everyone's freaking out about car traffic around the 405, bicycling represents a very viable alternative," cyclist Gary Kavanagh said.
Meanwhile, construction crews were working feverishly to take down a section of the 50-year-old Mulholland Bridge as part of a $1 billion freeway-widening project.
Extra police, fire and medical personnel were on hand to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Or, if it doesn't, to ensure they are prepared to handle any emergency.
The UCLA Health System, which runs the huge Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center located near the 405, was putting its weekend staff in dorm rooms and hotels to ensure they don't run late to work. Three helicopter companies were on standby to transport patients and human organs in case of emergency procedures.
For those who do have to drive, a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center psychiatrist was offering advice on how to keep calm and stay safe.
Among Dr. Waguih William IsHak's advice: avoid road rage at all costs, apologize profusely to anyone you accidentally cut off in traffic, be sure to leave for your destination with a full tank of gas and a cell phone.
Or, better yet, authorities say, stay at home.
"If everyone heeds our advice, this whole weekend will be in our rear view mirror and everybody will be fine," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.


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