They took the official wraps off the northbound carpool lane on the 405 freeway through Sepulveda Pass today. Drivers with a passenger aboard can now take the left lane from the Orange County line all the way up the 405. That was the nominal reason for the five years or so of construction mayhem along the Westside and Valley portions of the freeway — to add a carpool lane in one direction — but of course the project grew into a $1.1 billion upgrade to ten miles of aging freeway. Bridges were torn down and replaced, interchanges that have been out of date for decades rebuilt, and much more. It just happened to be the most traveled freeway in the country, 300,000 vehicles a day on a physical divide that impedes east-west traffic across the western part of the city.
The government officials who gathered Friday morning on a terrace of Getty Center to toast the completion said the "mother of all public works projects," as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called it, originated with an offer of federal stimulus funds. "It all began with Howard Berman calling me up and saying 'could you guys use $200 million?,'" Yaroslavsky said. Berman, who attended, received a lot of kudos at the gathering, as did Yaroslavsky for pushing the plan through political obstacles and for coining the media catch-phrase "Carmageddon" back in 2011, when the freeway closed down in the pass over a full weekend to allow demolition of part of the Mulholland Drive span over the 405.
Mayor Eric Garcetti had been disparaging of the freeway upgrade when he was campaigning, saying the billion dollars could buy a lot more in transit projects. But on Friday he was at center stage, praising the work of Metro and of his fixer on the project, former MTA commissioner Nick Patsaouras. "Looks like carvana," he quipped, adding that his parents live west of the 405 — "my mother would call whenever things got delayed." When I asked Garcetti afterward if he was still skeptical of spending a billion to fix a freeway, he said in the end it was a project that had to be done. Starting from scratch, he said, he would have pushed to add more transit capability to the freeway. But the current project was already well underway by the time he became mayor, a position that lets him appoint some members of the Metro board.
The I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project, the official name of this whole shebang, began construction in 2009 under the direction not of Caltrans, the state's freeway builder, but of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, our bus, light-rail and subway agency. Metro got the call because — remember — the 405 project was officially about a carpool lane. While they were at it, the contractor, Kieiwit Infrastructure West, widened the freeway, replaced the imposing Mulholland Drive bridge and two others, reinvented the 1950s-design Wilshire Boulevard interchange, lengthened on and offramps to make things safer and help city streets, relaid the path of Sepulveda Boulevard (again), added 20 miles of sound and retaining walls (some of them twice), and to prepare for all this work had to shift the location of oil and gas pipelines, water mains and utility lines. All this while dodging 300,000 cars and trucks a day. "Like performing open heart surgery on a patient who is running a marathon," Metro board chair Diane Dubois said Friday, borrowing an earlier quip from a participant in the project.
There is some final punch list work to be done around the project, but the main features are in place and working. The project came in about a year behind schedule and about $100 million over budget.
One note of controversy was sounded Friday. Councilman Tom LaBonge said he took some of the credit for leaving a gap in the freeway sound wall beside the Los Angeles National Cemetery, so that motorists on the interstate could see the graves of 80,000 veterans while passing by. But Yaroslavsky and Councilman Paul Koretz said some residents beside the freeway have complained about the extra noise. Koretz said he didn't know how the wall came to be left open until LaBonge told his story.
Another interesting note. Howard Berman was recognized from the podium a couple of times. The Democrat who defeated Berman in 2012, Rep. Brad Sherman, wasn't there -- and that may explain why I received a press release from Sherman last night jumping the gun and announcing today's conclusion to the work. "405 Carpool Lane Opens," says the release dated yesterday, detailing Sherman's role with Berman and ithers to secure funding.
He also added: "Now is not the time to celebrate one new lane. Now is the time to intensify the effort to build a subway through the Sepulveda Pass, from the Valley to LAX, with a connection in West Los Angeles to the Purple Line, now under construction.” Don't hold your breath: the Purple Line isn't scheduled to reach even Westwood until 2036, and there is no formal project yet to build a subway from the Valley to LAX.
Some pics taken today: