- Associated Press - Sunday, July 17, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The mayor of Los Angeles said Sunday that a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405, one of the nation’s busiest freeways, would reopen beginning about 11:30 a.m. PDT because bridge work on the roadway was completed 16 hours ahead of schedule.

At a Sunday-morning news conference, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised contractors for working so quickly and thanked city residents for heeding calls to stay off the roads.

Crews finished demolition work on the bridge at about 7 a.m., toppling two massive pillars.

The freeway previously was scheduled to reopen at 5 a.m. Monday, with on-ramps and connectors all open an hour later.

The traffic that many thought would cause a “Carmageddon” was much lighter than normal as Los Angeles entered the second day of closure on Sunday.

Officials were elated that the public appeared to have gotten the message to avoid Carmageddon by staying off the roads, though some had been concerned the lack of gridlock would make drivers complacent and spur them to return to the roads before Monday’s scheduled reopening.

“We hope they still listen to what we’re saying and not go out and try to drive through this area, because it is going to be congested if people do that,” said Mike Miles, a district director of the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans.

Authorities closed the segment of 405 on the western side of Los Angeles at midnight Friday to allow partial demolition of a bridge.

For weeks, authorities warned people that driving as usual this weekend could trigger what’s been hyped as “Carmageddon” — an event could back up vehicles from the 405 to surface streets and other freeways, causing a domino effect that could paralyze much of Los Angeles.

But the fears of epic traffic jams dissipated with fewer cars on the roads.

“It’s been one of the most quiet Saturdays I’ve seen in forever,” said Steven Ramada, who had expected to hear lots of cars honking in front of his Sherman Oaks home but instead only heard news helicopters.

Project contractor Kiewit Infrastructure West would have faced a $6,000 fine in each direction for every 10 minutes of delay in getting the freeway reopened after Monday’s 2 a.m. deadline, according to the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s a total of $72,000 an hour.

Powerful machines with long booms hammered away at the south side of the half-century-old Mulholland Bridge, which was being removed to allow construction of an additional freeway lane. The plan is to leave the north-side lanes standing until the south side is rebuilt. Another closure will be required in the future to demolish the north side.

Gail Standish, 47, pedaled from Beverly Hills with her bicycling club to a 405 overlook a quarter-mile from the closed span.

“Everybody’s calling this weekend ‘Carmageddon,’ but seeing the freeway empty, it feels more post-apocalyptic,” Ms. Standish said.

Authorities looking at the potential impact of the $1 billion interstate project spent months giving the public dire warnings. The event got its name when Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told an early June press conference that “this doesn’t need to be a Carmageddon” if people avoided driving.

The potential for Carmageddon is rooted in Los Angeles’ geography. The city is divided by the Santa Monica Mountains, which stretch more than 40 miles from near downtown westward through Malibu. The populous San Fernando Valley lies on the north side, and the Los Angeles Basin sprawls to the south.

Local and long-distance freeway traffic through the mountains has to squeeze through Sepulveda Pass on I-405 or about five miles to the east through Cahuenga Pass, which carries U.S. 101 through the heart of Hollywood. In between there is no grid of boulevards, just a few narrow, windy canyon roads.

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