It was one of the most over-hyped news stories of last year. Carmageddon – and its perils – was foretold by politicians, celebrities and neighborhood organizations, all warning Los Angeles residents of certain doom if they attempted to drive anywhere. The reason? The closure of a 10-mile stretch of freeway for a mere 53 hours. Well, get ready: It’s about to happen again.
So what’s the problem with closing one freeway for one weekend? Well, it happens to be the 405, the primary artery connecting Los Angeles’ Westside and the tony towns of the San Fernando Valley, which millions of Angelenos call home. In fact, it’s the most-traveled stretch of roadway in the nation, a ten-lane patch of asphalt that carries 374,000 cars each day. Even on weekends, when traffic is lighter, the stretch can carry 500,000 cars over the two-day span. And from midnight tonight until 6 a.m. Monday, that crucial roadway will be impassible.
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It’s the same stretch that was closed last July, during the original Carmageddon, so that road crews could demolish the southbound side of the Mulholland Bridge. They’ve returned 14 months later — in other words, now — to take down the northbound side. It’s part of a $1 billion freeway improvement project, which can’t be completed until the bridge’s supports are taken down. The demolition project was split into two parts to mitigate the frustration and gridlock.
While there are alternate routes, the 405 freeway is by far the most direct route to the Valley. A number of canyon roads cut the same path, including Sepulveda Boulevard, but they’re slow, winding and congested even when the 405 is open, as UCLA Urban Planning Professor Brian D. Taylor told TIME last year. But Angelenos should be old hands at avoiding the closed stretch by now, right?
Well, that remains to be seen. Last year, thanks to warnings by city officials and local media — and a news blitz that included social media, national publications and even this publication — Carmageddon never materialized. The total gridlock some feared, stretching from the Mexico border all the way north to Bakersfield, never materialized. Construction crews even finished their work 17 hours ahead of schedule. In fact, as Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put it in a warning video about this weekend’s sequel, Carmageddon was more like “Carma-Heaven.” (ba-dum.) “We were successful [last year] because people cooperated,” L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re asking people to cooperate again.” Officials from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which is overseeing the project, are optimistic that their warnings will be heeded.
But the worry is that this year’s Carmageddon could actually be worse than last year’s. Caltrans crews have 30 percent more work to do in the same 53-hour span. UCLA — which lies right along the freeway — has 41,000 students back in school, an issue that was of no concern last July. And frankly, after last year’s overblown hysteria, it’s hard to get people that worked up about it again. Doomsday scenarios have been discarded in favor of a more nuanced message. Now, asking Angelenos to stay out of their cars is being proposed as a challenge rather than a demand. “What we’re going to say is: ‘What about another day without a car in L.A.? What about Angelenos accepting the challenge to stay out of their car?'” Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times. Even the traffic alert signs, which warned drivers last year to “EXPECT BIG DELAY” say this time around to simply “EXPECT DELAY.”
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Last year, JetBlue offered cross-city flights from Burbank to Long Beach, allowing travelers to simply fly over any potential delays. This year, companies are attempting to lure residents out of the city. Businesses in Palm Springs, Calif., a two-hour drive east, are offering a number of deals for those interested in helping decongest Los Angeles. Among the most clever is the “Comegedaroom” hotel package. “With public cooperation, [the traffic issue] will be a non-event,” County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Of course, the non-event of 2011 could still turn into the event of 2012. And if things go really badly, perhaps it’ll be the Hollywood blockbuster of 2016.