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Political stakes are high for 405 closure

This weekend's 'Carmageddon' could be a public relations fiasco or a home run, depending on whether drivers heed the advice of officials. Press conferences, social media and freeway signs have all played a part in getting the word out.

July 13, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • The closure of the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass this weekend is the largest planned freeway closure in Los Angeles history.
The closure of the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass this weekend is the largest… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

With the weekend-long 405 Freeway closure fast approaching, public officials have kicked the public outreach machine into high gear, hoping to avoid the twin evils of crippling gridlock and angry constituents.

The closure of the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass this week to allow for demolition of half of the Mulholland Drive bridge as part of a widening project and construction of new carpool lanes is the largest planned freeway closure in Los Angeles history.

The stakes are high for public officials, who know that disruptions to the transportation system can win them praise if managed effectively or become a public relations nightmare when bungled, like the political fiasco New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg faced over last winter's blizzards that became known as "Snowmageddon."

When it comes to "Carmageddon," officials have waged an extensive campaign to get out in front.

They have used freeway signs, Web alerts, press conferences, community meetings and social media — and more unconventional tactics, like asking celebrities to post about the closure on Twitter. (Some, including director David Lynch and actor Ashton Kutcher, have done so.)

The extensive public relations campaign makes sense on two fronts, said Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies.

"If you don't sufficiently alarm people enough to get them to change their behavior, you're likely to have a strong backlash," he said. "And the more you're out there about it, the more you can say, we warned you."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa echoed that thought when asked if he thought residents will be less upset about the disruption because of the extensive outreach campaign. "I think they'll be less upset if they heed our advice to stay out of the area," he said.

"'Carmageddon' is not a phrase that I invented, but it's certainly one I've exploited," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the closure area. The supervisor dedicated a page on his website to the closure, complete with a countdown ticker created by Metro.

"As a politician, I get a lot of grief when people are caught by surprise about a problem," Yaroslavsky said, recalling the angry calls from constituents after President Obama's motorcade during a visit last August shut down Westside surface streets during the afternoon rush hour, turning some people's 45-minute commutes to a three-hour crawl.

Other elected officials recalled the event with a shudder. "I went ballistic," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who contacted the White House to demand that the president's next visit avoid a repeat. Both the White House and local officials took pains to make the president's next visit less of a traffic headache.

Even in the case of road closures caused by forces of nature, politicians can face criticism if they're seen as unprepared. New York City's Mayor Bloomberg was hammered during the winter because residents believed the city did not act quickly enough to clear streets after major snowstorms in December. A Marist Poll taken shortly after the snowstorm saw Bloomberg's approval rating had plummeted to 37%, the lowest level of his tenure.

On the other side of the coin, many point to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a prime example of good planning in the face of a potential transportation disaster .

The Games were widely predicted to bring nightmarish gridlock, but the doomsday scenarios did not materialize. Traffic management planning began months in advance, and even without the benefit of the Internet, the word got out. Employers temporarily shut down or changed their hours, delivery companies changed their schedules, commuters worked from home or switched their routes, and traffic flowed smoothly.

Then-Mayor Tom Bradley and other officials were praised for their planning and outreach efforts.

"I think the Olympics were a huge success because the word was out," Rosendahl said. "My hope is with all this notice, [Carmageddon] will be like the '84 Olympics."

But when it comes to construction, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Experts said if the 405 does not reopen on schedule in time for the Monday morning commute, or if the public outreach campaign fails to convince drivers to avoid the area, Carmageddon could still turn into a political nightmare.

"I think public officials have been doing as much as one could expect them to do," said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert with Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. "Whether or not it's successful remains to be seen."

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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