The Mulholand bridge over the 405 is broken up. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
A bridge demolition project that forced the weekend closure of the 405 Freeway at the Sepulveda Pass was proceeding briskly Saturday, as authorities continued warning area motorists to stay home or risk a major traffic meltdown.
By early Saturday morning it was clear that many had heeded the call of politicians and transportation officials to steer clear of the massive highway project, as traffic throughout the city was light. For weeks, an extensive public relations campaign warned residents of impending gridlock as a result of the closure, and urged Angelenos to either stay home or opt for public transportation.
"It's going smooth because people are not getting into their cars," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters at a news conference by the Mulholland Drive bridge. "Virtually every artery, every major street has less than normal traffic. Thanks to the media, they're the reason this is going smoothly....If you get into your car and act as if it's business as usual, you'll be stuck in the mother of all gridlock."
PHOTOS: 'Carmageddon' closes the 405 Freeway
The 405 was shut down at 12 a.m. Saturday between the 101 and 10 freeways, as workers demolished the southern half of the bridge, which spans the freeway. That 10-mile stretch of the 405 carries roughly 500,000 vehicles on a normal July weekend.
The demolition is part of a larger $1-billion freeway improvement project that includes adding a northbound carpool lane. The freeway will be shut down again in 11 months as crews take down the other half of the bridge.
Villaraigosa took a helicopter tour of the construction site and surrounding areas, saying he was amazed to see how light traffic was not only on the freeways, but on surface streets as well. Transportation officials feared gridlock on the canyon roads near the Sepulveda Pass, as well as Pacific Coast Highway and the major east-west arteries from downtown to the Westside would result in widespread "Carmageddon," but that never materialized.
"No one is on Santa Monica Beach or Zuma Beach. Hardly anyone is on Pacific Coast Highway. It's dead as a doornail out there," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "There are no choke points anywhere we can see — there are no holdups anywhere."
"This reminds me of the movie 'On the Beach,' " Yaroslavsky added, referring to a 1959 movie set in post-apocalypse Australia. "No one is out, no one is driving."
He predicted demolition work would be completed ahead of the 5 a.m. Monday deadline. By Saturday afternoon, the center stand of the bridge was mostly gone, and crews were removing girders on the other two stands.
Politicians and transportation officials have been warning residents for months to stay off the freeways this weekend, even enlisting actors Tom Hanks and Ashton Kutcher and singer Lady Gaga to alert their millions of followers on Twitter. California Department of Transportation road signs flashed warnings about the closure up and down the state.
Kristen Cortez, a 24-year-old law student from the Mid-Wilshire area, usually drives to visit her parents in Santa Barbara but decided a week ago to catch a train from downtown Los Angeles' Union Station. When she woke up this morning, the freeways were clear. But she decided not to take any chances.
"I just didn't want to have to worry," she said. "You never know what's going to happen on Sunday."
Metrolink spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said ridership doubled on some trains on the Oceanside to Union Station line, and more riders also piled aboard trains between downtown and the Antelope Valley. The MTA's Red Line station in North Hollywood also was buzzing more than on an average Saturday, agency officials said.
The closure is designed to give construction workers enough time to raze the southern half of the bridge, which is being chipped away using cutting saws, acetylene torches and jackhammers mounted on heavy equipment. About 4,000 tons of concrete must be removed.
Contractors working on the 405 Freeway project face penalties of $6,000 for every 10 minutes they run over the allotted time for completion — which is 53 hours. The fines apply separately for each side of the freeway, meaning that amount would double if both the southbound and northbound lanes remain closed.
Should motorists approach the closure area, they will be channeled from the 405 onto the 101 or 10 freeways. Those traveling on the 101 and the 10 will not be able to enter the 405 because of the closed connectors.
If the 405 is not reopened early, all lanes and freeway connectors are scheduled to be back in operation by 5 a.m. Monday. The onramps and offramps will be returned to service by 6 a.m.
Sepulveda Boulevard will remain open during the demolition work. The heavily traveled street parallels the 405 and provides an alternative link between the San Fernando Valley and West L.A.
To deal with the closure, public safety agencies have increased staffing and positioned paramedics and firefighters in neighborhoods that could be affected. Hospitals, such as Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center, also have taken measures to remain adequately staffed through the weekend.