Los Angeles braces for weekend of "Carmageddon"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A city renowned for its traffic is about to face a jam of biblical proportions.

Traffic is seen on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, California July 14, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

“Carmageddon” is the name Los Angeles residents are giving the inevitable and likely epic traffic tie-up that will result when a 10-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway is closed for construction from Friday night to Monday morning between two of the nation’s busiest interchanges.

The unprecedented 53-hour shutdown, expected to delay motorists for hours on alternate routes with ripple effects on about a dozen other major highways, will allow crews to demolish a bridge as part of a $1 billion freeway-widening project.

In a sign that few motorists in America’s second-largest city take a breezy attitude toward the closure, Los Angeles plans to open its emergency operations center over the weekend. And L.A.’s public transit agency will provide free service on 26 bus lines and three of its five light-rail lines.

This being Hollywood, officials have recruited several celebrities to warn motorists of the impending gridlock, including pop star Lady Gaga, newly cast “Two and a Half Men” star Ashton Kutcher and “CHiPs” actor Erik Estrada. Their main message: Stay away, or at least stay off the roads.

As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa once predicted, “It will be an absolute nightmare.”

That message has inspired a number of leisure destinations outside Los Angeles to offer special “Escape Carmageddon” discount packages, from a Mammoth Mountain hotel in the Eastern Sierras to a hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

But most people who live and work in and around the gridlock zone have no choice but to hunker down for the weekend.

The UCLA Medical Center on the city’s upscale westside has secured 600 dorms and apartments as temporary quarters for hospital staff as part of an emergency plan to prevent doctors and nurses from getting stuck in traffic.

“We see this as being a disaster -- only it’s a planned disaster,” said Posie Carpenter, the medical center’s chief administrative officer.

The Getty Center, a popular art museum nestled in the hills above the 405 Freeway, has said it will be closed to visitors this weekend because of the construction project.


Lisa McGuinness is going to stay in a hotel for three nights near the deli she owns near the north end of the shutdown, rather than risk stewing in traffic for hours with a commute from her home 30 miles away in Los Angeles’ South Bay community of Torrance.

“The freeway stresses me out every day,” she said. “With this, I’m just thinking we just have to stay out of it. I just can’t even imagine what the streets are going to be like.”

In an “Over-the-405” promotion launched on Wednesday by JetBlue Airways, the discount airline offered special nonstop flights between Long Beach and Burbank for Saturday priced at just $4 each way, taxes and fees included.

The 600 seats available on the four flights -- two each going in either direction -- sold out within three hours, the airline said.

Charter helicopter companies are selling air “taxi” service to Los Angeles International Airport for well-heeled L.A. travelers fearful of missing pre-booked airline flights to more distant destinations.

For those seeking a more casual bird’s eye view of the traffic carnage, and the dose of schadenfreude that goes with it, Adventure Helicopter Tours is offering 45-minute flights over the area, complete with champagne, for $400 per couple.

The stretch of the 405 Freeway that will be closed, known locally as the Sepulveda Pass, is traversed by about 500,000 vehicles on a typical summer weekend, said Marc Littman, a spokesman for Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), an agency handling the project.

The canyon pass is a traffic choke point even without a construction project, as it serves as a north-south gateway from the city’s sizzling hot San Fernando Valley to several beaches and the more temperate westside.

The 405, a U.S. interstate route that runs from Irvine, California, north to the Mission Hills district of Los Angeles, is perhaps best known outside L.A. for the widely televised low-speed police chase of O.J. Simpson, then suspected in the murder of his ex-wife, in June 1994.

One thing is for sure, Carmageddon has Angelenos talking.

In a YouTube parody video using footage from the 2004 movie “Downfall” and viewed over 50,000 times, an actor playing Adolf Hitler rails furiously against the freeway closure, in English subtitles: “I’ll be lucky to get out of my driveway.”

Estrada, who played a California Highway Patrol officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, who sped through freeways on a motorbike, is also on YouTube talking about shutdown.

He appears in an MTA public service announcement, and this time Estrada -- who is a reserve deputy sheriff in real life -- is letting motorists off with a warning.

“People are going to take heed, and they’re going to stay away,” Estrada said in a telephone interview. “I’m going to stay away.”

Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Steve Gorman. Jerry Norton, and Cynthia Johnston