Traffic begins to back up on Coldwater Canyon Avenue at Ventura Boulevard… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, the Rev. Dan Justin will don a black cassock and sash, lead his congregation to the sidewalk outside St. Michael & All Angels Church and sprinkle holy water on the bulldozers, trucks and cranes gathered along Coldwater Canyon Avenue.
As Justin improvises a prayer, the machinery will growl to life. Saturday marks the start of a monthlong construction project that will choke off a vital mountain artery connecting the Westside to the San Fernando Valley.
"We want to tell the crews, 'Hey, we're with you on this,'" Justin said. "It's a nicer alternative to all the angry commuters."
A 2.1-mile segment of the twisting route prized by commuters will be closed during business hours through April 25. The roughly 1,300 cars per hour that travel the road will have to go elsewhere, which officials warn will increase traffic on commuter lifelines that connect the Westside and the Valley: Laurel Canyon, Cahuenga, Beverly Glen and Sepulveda boulevards.
"We know everyone expects it to be total chaos," said Jeff Bray, a Department of Water and Power superintendent overseeing the project. Officials are hoping scare tactics will create a "Carmageddon effect" — eerily quiet streets similar to those seen during construction shutdowns of the 405 Freeway in 2011 and 2012.
Coldwater Canyon will be completely closed from Ventura Boulevard to Mulholland Drive from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. At night and on Sundays, one lane will be open in each direction.
The closures are part of a $62-million DWP project to replace half a mile of 99-year-old water pipe. Four years ago, part of the main broke at Ventura Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon, causing $7 million in damage when an estimated 4 million gallons of water flooded homes and businesses.
Residents in some 250 homes that can be accessed only via Coldwater Canyon, as well as those needing to reach churches, schools and businesses in the canyon, have received special passes, Bray said.
Residents and business owners who remember the 2009 flooding regard the construction with a mixture of resignation and dread. It will help in the long run, they acknowledge, but meanwhile will create a traffic headache.
"It's already horrible, and this is going to ratchet it up exponentially," said Craig Borders, 43. He lives off Laurel Canyon and fears the traffic spillover will make it impossible to get around. A producer, he's considering a temporary job in Florida to escape "this monthlong nightmare."
Even when the closures end, road construction will continue as DWP crews bore under Ventura and finish more pipe work. Nearby business owners who depend on Coldwater Canyon drivers are bracing for slower sales.
"Our lifeline is Coldwater Canyon," said Toros Deurdulian, 77, who owns the 76 gas station at Coldwater Canyon and Ventura. Since the construction crews showed up, Deurdulian said, his sales have dropped by 1,500 gallons a day — a 30% loss. And with fewer gas sales, he's also selling fewer snacks, drinks and cigarettes.
"We've seen this before, but never like this," said Deurdulian, who has run the station for 21 years.
The construction coincides with Holy Week, the religious celebrations that lead up to Easter Sunday. The road will be open on Good Friday.
Most choir practices, youth group meetings and classes for adults at Justin's church have been canceled during April. A number of 12-step meeting groups will relocate during construction because members are anonymous, Justin said, and don't want to apply for passes.
The upper campus of Harvard-Westlake School sits just south of Ventura on Coldwater Canyon, and the DWP is asking parents to use alternate routes and keep their passes at hand. The bell rings at 8:30 a.m., the same time daily construction will start.