Atlantic Cities

When 'Carmageddon' Strikes, How Much of California Feels the Pain?

August 26th, driving from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, I saw a curious sight: Out in the middle of nowhere, probably somewhere around where Interstate 580 meets Interstate 5, I passed one of those digital signs. It warned:

405 WILL CLOSE; RTE 10 TO 101
SEPT 29-30; EXPECT DELAYS

And so it has been, for weeks, on signs up and down California. Almost every corner of the state is being inundated with the message: A 10-mile freeway closure that wouldn't happen for more than a month in a city 300 miles away.

It's almost too bizarre to be real, but it certainly is. And when it comes to freeway traffic in L.A., precaution is merited. The closure of Interstate 405 this weekend is the second major closure, otherwise known as "Carmageddon II." This time, the second section of a bridge will be demolished, requiring crews to take over the entire span of the highway underneath. Pulling this stretch of highway out of commission for a weekend will undoubtedly affect a lot of people.

Half a million cars drive on this section of freeway on a typical weekend. It's a crucial link in the regionwide highway infrastructure of Southern California and, on weekdays, a regular rush hour parking lot. But do people hundreds of miles away really need to know that, for 48 hours, this 10-mile section of L.A. freeway will be closed?

"The 405 is one of the busiest highways in the nation," says Ron Macias, a spokesperson for Metro, L.A. county's transportation authority and lead on the construction project. "We wanted to get the message out as far and as wide to as many people as possible."

Macias says that's happened through a media campaign online, in print, over the radio and on TV, and widespread outreach efforts to inform stakeholders near the closure area, hospitals, police, EMTs, fire crews, and the California Highway Patrol.

The effort has also included the digital highway signs, operated by the state Department of Transportation, Caltrans. Almost every digital sign along major highways and roads has been flashing the Carmageddon II warning since August, from Orange County all the way up to the Oregon border. For the past few weeks, the signs have been shining the message 24/7.

The driving public is the intended audience, according to Macias, who says that much of the weekend traffic on the 405 is just your average weekend traveller – either hauling the kids down to a beach or a theme park or a local simply heading across town to visit a friend. But the business community also relies on the interstate highway system. Many of those warnings were to meant to reach truck drivers. Stumbling across a freeways closure is a little more important when you've got a deadline to meet.

"There is that potential that there could be extreme congestion," Macias says. "So for the trucking community, delivery services, we wanted to try to encourage them to alter their work schedule, not to make deliveries or to travel far outside the area."

Another part of the outreach effort was to the two ports in the area, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, the two busiest ports in the U.S. But according to Art Wong of the Port of Long Beach, a closure on the 405 shouldn't affect traffic into or out of the ports, especially on the weekend.

"Out of the six terminals we have, only one is open on Saturday. And even that terminal, I don't know if it's going to be that busy. So it's less than one-sixth of the traffic coming through on a Saturday," says Wong. He says there's virtually no traffic on Sundays. And even if there were, most head directly east rather than north to where the closure is taking place.

"I don’t think any special efforts are being made down here to modify schedules," Wong says. "Ordinarily this is among the busier times of the year for us, but the economy's been so weak."

But port traffic isn't the only truck business moving on L.A.'s freeways.

The 10-mile section of road closure is about seven miles up the 405 from Los Angeles International Airport, the sixth busiest airport in the world. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of people flying in and out on a given weekend, millions of packages and parcels will be hitting the tarmac, with trucks waiting to get them where they need to go.

"If you're expecting a package, you don't care if the freeway's closed," says Bonnie Kourvelas, spokesperson for FedEx. She says the company plans far in advance for road closures like this, just like they did in July 2011 for the first Carmageddon.

"As soon as something like this is announced, different teams get together to plan out the best way to keep packages going where they need to go," she says. "They can look at some similar contingency plans from the past that have worked, they can look at some projected models of what they could do, and then they basically have regular meetings and conference calls to make sure everything's on track."

"As a matter of fact," Kourvelas says on Thursday afternoon, "there's a conference call going on right now just to finalize some of the route changes they decided on."

Los Angelenos are probably sick of hearing about Carmageddon. Despite the wide reaching public notification effort and the statewide warnings, in the end it's just a little freeway closure – a freeway closure on the busiest freeway in one of the most populated and freight-heavy areas in the country. It's a big deal, but then again, it's really not. At least not for those who are prepared.

"We've dealt with stuff like this thousands of times," FedEx's Kourvelas says confidently.

Top image: A woman on a bridge takes a picture of the empty Interstate 405 in July 2011 during the first "Carmageddon" freeway closure. All images: Eric Thayer / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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