Lost Highway? How Metro Turns the 405 Into an Impossible Detour Maze
ILLUSTRATION BY JIMMY GIEGERICH
You're on the Westside at night, trying to take the 405 north during endless freeway construction. How ridiculously convoluted and frustrating might Metro's suggested detour be?
Los Angeles residents are experiencing astonishment and outrage over Metro's ever-changing closures and baffling detours that lure drivers into a hell from which it's hard to escape.
"I'm going north on the 405 and want to get off and go west on Wilshire." says Charles Viracola, a prop designer who splits his time between West L.A. and North Carolina. "But once you pass the Santa Monica Boulevard exit, it has you walled in with these pylons and you're trapped. You can't back up because there's people behind you and there's a concrete wall on the side."
He sat with hundreds of others, none of them warned of the 25-minute delay. "I'm stuck, almost completely stopped."
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"I'm going to see a friend Friday night in Sylmar, coming from Santa Monica, and am told [by friends who'd used the on-ramp recently] to take the 405 at Olympic," says Ann Harris, a Pasadena paralegal who works in Santa Monica. "It's around 11:20 p.m. and I end up having to make a U-turn because I can't get on the freeway." The ramp is closed.
Harris continues up what she later learns is Cotner Avenue, a sleepy and obscure frontage road with two entrances to the northbound 405. Metro's signage has drawn many to Cotner.
"At some point I see a sign: 'End of Freeway Detour,' " Harris says. "But where am I supposed to get on? There is no entrance there."
It's a quiet night. But it takes Harris 20 minutes to find a northbound entry to the 405.
"We've committed to delivering the project as quickly as possible," says David Sotero, a spokesman for Metro, lead agency on the 405 reconstruction, which is now running more than a year behind schedule.
Five ramps are complete. But five more ramps still must be modernized. Sotero says reduced travel lanes and delays are unfortunate and unavoidable.
While this is undoubtedly true, it's the repetitive examples of unrealized mitigations that puzzle and enrage people.
"I'm heading to the West Valley to have dinner with friends." says Marc Danziger, a technology strategist from Torrance who works in Century City. Expected in Woodland Hills at 8:30 p.m., he stays at his office until 7:45 p.m. to avoid the worst of the rush-hour traffic.
"The online traffic map shows the north 405 looking green," Danziger says. "So I decide to jump on at Santa Monica Boulevard." His app shows a fast-moving 405, although he can plainly see that the on-ramp up ahead is badly jammed.
He could kick himself for joining the on-ramp, because soon after that a Metro surprise is in store for him:
"They had created a little channel with concrete barriers and have us locked in this one lane along the road's shoulder. ... All that traffic going north from Santa Monica Boulevard, both directions from Wilshire, and more, are channeled into this one-lane 'canal' they've built." And this on "a Friday night — with no flashing sign at the entrance warning of this."
The 405 buzzes along at 50 mph right next to Danziger. By the time he merges with that traffic, far north near Montana Avenue, he has blown 55 minutes and missed his event.
For Danziger, a well-traveled motorcycle enthusiast, Metro's bungled signage is beyond irksome. Just close the on-ramp, Danziger says. Don't trick people into a one-hour delay.
People wonder, why is Metro so bad at this? This month, brace for even more.
According to Metro's online list of full freeway closures, the northbound 405 exit to Wilshire eastbound will be closed in June; the 405 northbound on-ramp from eastbound Wilshire will be closed August-October; the northbound Sunset ramp, which is being relocated, will be closed from June until late 2013; and various lanes, ramps and major connectors (405/10 and 405/101) will close between 7 p.m. and midnight, reopening at 6 a.m. — as needed.
L.A. Weekly drove part of Metro's maze to understand the infuriating dead-ends and unintended canyon adventures that have been reported by drivers, anecdotally, for months. Metro says it can't say how many complaints it has received. (The complaint hotline is (213) 922-3365.)
One recent night, the eastbound 10 freeway connector to the 405 north is closed. An ill-placed warning sign tells freeway drivers this information too late to seriously ponder evasive action — such as tooling up Pacific Coast Highway or quickly exiting on Pico Boulevard to take Bundy Drive north to Sunset Boulevard.
The cars instead get stuck in a big backup on eastbound 10, all wanting to go north. (A map on Metro's little-known detour site suggests that, in a pinch, 405 motorists get to the San Fernando Valley by swinging far east, through downtown Los Angeles, then north on the 101 or 5.)
Most of us take the Overland Avenue/National Boulevard exit. After all, it's Metro's official "detour." Then the detour signs seem to disappear.
It's close to 11 p.m. and we're lost in Palms — a mix of diagonal and grid-based streets that cross beneath freeway overpasses tantalizingly out of reach. Drivers who know the Westside head north on Sepulveda Boulevard, turning left at Pico, then quickly right on — oh God, it's Cotner Avenue. The very spot where Ann Harris got trapped.
The Cotner on-ramp to the 405 north, near Tennessee Avenue, is closed. The Weekly speaks to a crew there, working in a small no-man's-land amidst heavy-duty vehicles and high-powered lighting. A worker suggests that the Santa Monica Boulevard entrance might be open.
Nope, we find it's closed. We decide that Sepulveda, a frontage road that winds north to the Valley, is the best choice. But when we make a quick turn to Ohio Avenue and reach Sepulveda, we spy two warring, bright orange Metro detour signs. One detour points south, the other east.
Metro's detour ideas have already left us high and dry. So we use our geographical knowledge, turning north on Sepulveda. A mistake. At Wilshire Boulevard, Sepulveda is closed. We cut east toward Westwood and Veteran Avenue, then turn north, then west to Montana Avenue, which finally takes us to Sepulveda.
The intersection is closed. A big orange detour sign directs us further west, beneath the 405. Deeply uncertain, we approach a crew working behind the northbound Sepulveda barricade.
"You see on the right side of the lanes orange signs that indicate the exact time of street closures," says Lorenzo Garcia, a polite construction worker. "It's also put out in the media. There's plenty of signage up and down Sepulveda, indicating what time and what dates the closures will be in effect."
We believe him. But these details are lost in the blur of scenery whizzing past drivers. By the time drivers decipher them, it's too late: They are caught in the confusing tangle.
Garcia says Metro's detour routes are the work of Statewide Traffic Control, a subcontractor to major contractor Kiewit. Statewide Traffic Control tells L.A. Weekly it can't speak to the press.
"There will be some closures every day, both day and night," Garcia says. "It's getting close to completion — but who knows when?"
We dutifully follow the Metro/Statewide Traffic Control/Kiewit detour signs into leafy Brentwood Glen. There, Church Lane, a frontage road on the west side of the 405, eventually crosses Sunset, swings around Angeles Hotel, passes eastward under the 405 and spills onto Sepulveda north.
At last, we discover the first open entrance to the 405. It's on Sepulveda at Moraga Drive, roughly across from the Getty Center, and miles from where we began.
Sotero explains, "We've never sugarcoated the impacts. I think we do a pretty good job alerting, getting the word out about closures" via changeable message signs mounted on freeways, portable signs placed within a 10 mile-radius of closures and updating of Metro's project website.
Sotero says the city of Los Angeles "reviews the detours." But what would be "logical for a motorist, we wouldn't necessarily recommend, because we don't want to send masses of humanity down local streets. ... There are rules about that stuff — which you can ask Caltrans about."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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