LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A key Los Angeles freeway closed for construction work reopened some 18 hours ahead of schedule on Sunday, bringing an early end to a much-hyped "Carmageddon" traffic crisis that never materialized, officials said.
"Mission accomplished," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proclaimed at a late-morning news conference, shortly before traffic on Interstate 405 resumed in both directions to cap an unprecedented 42-hour shutdown of America's busiest stretch of freeway.
The mayor said the early reopening would save about $400,000 in salary and other costs associated with the project.
L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, widely credited with popularizing the phrase "Carmageddon," said a campaign urging motorists to stay off the roads in the region surrounding the closure also was a resounding success.
"Carmageddon, Schmarmageddon," he joked to reporters, then added: "Two-thirds of the people who normally drive the freeways of this area were not on the freeways this weekend ... and everybody can live to talk about it."
A 10-mile segment of the I-405 that ranks as the most heavily traveled section of freeway in the United States was shut down on Friday night to allow for demolition of half a bridge as part of a $1 billion freeway widening project.
The closure originally was scheduled to last until about 6 a.m. local time on Monday, a schedule that likely would have wreaked havoc on much of the city's morning commute.
But Villaraigosa said demolition work was completed early, allowing crews to reopen the I-405, starting with ramps and connector roads at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.
Southbound lanes were reopened to traffic a short time later, and the freeway was back in full operation by around noon, said Dave Sotero, a planning official with the Los Angels County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The 10-mile freeway segment known locally as the Sepulveda Pass carries about 500,000 vehicles on a typical summer weekend, and its closure forced motorists to find alternate routes for L.A.'s most heavily traveled north-south corridor.
The shutdown had been expected to bring gridlock to the surrounding area and backups to nearly a dozen other freeways in a region tightly woven by high-speed traffic.
But motorists largely heeded warnings from officials and public service announcements from celebrities urging drivers to avoid L.A.'s Westside, averting the anticipated epic traffic jam residents had prospectively dubbed "Carmageddon."
Still, the wide-open stretch of closed freeway proved irresistible to some, with three joggers and two bicyclists issued citations for sneaking onto the 405 during the day on Saturday, authorities said. Several other groups of cyclists tried to get on the freeway but were turned away by police.
One motorist was caught driving through a closed portion of the freeway and was cited for going over the posted 25 mile-per-hour speed limit in a construction zone, said Monique Mischeaux, spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol.
Perhaps the biggest transportation drama on Saturday, the first full day of the closure, was a race between a group of bicyclists and JetBlue Airways, which offered $4 flights between Burbank and Long Beach as a special weekend promotion.
The cyclists made the one-way trip in less than an hour and a half. The JetBlue flight they were racing took just 12 minutes, but one airline passenger who left his home at the same time as the cyclists started their trip, arrived an hour later at the finish line, due to the added time of commuting to the airport, checking in, going through security and getting lost in a cab.
JetBlue called for a rematch.
A repeat of the freeway closure is planned for next year to enable transit crews to remove the remainder of the half-demolished bridge and complete the widening project.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by David Bailey)