Freeway Shutdown Promises Sales for Gridlock-Survival Services

Freeway Closure Promises Sales at Gridlock-Survival Services
A construction worker walks on a closed section of the Interstate 405 freeway near the Sunset Boulevard overpass on July 16, 2011. Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

Closing the busiest stretch of freeway in Los Angeles this weekend may hurt businesses in the area, except for companies like Waze and JetBlue Airways Corp. that help travelers find a way around the mess.

The shutdown of part of Interstate 405 -- an event known as Carmageddon to local media -- may back up traffic by as much as 30 miles, according to Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles International Airport. Residents have been warned to stay home or map out alternate routes during the closure of a 10-mile stretch that links L.A.’s Westside with the San Fernando Valley. Plans are for ramps to begin to be blocked at 7 p.m. tonight and for traffic to flow again by 6 a.m. Monday.

Waze, a mobile application that helps drivers navigate around traffic jams, has added more than 80,000 active users, an increase of about two-thirds in a market that is its biggest, said Di-Ann Eisnor, a vice president at the Palo Alto, California-based startup.

“When we heard about this, we thought we had to find a way to respond,” Eisnor said in an interview. “This really becomes an important showcase.”

Other companies see opportunities too. Briles Wing & Helicopter Inc. is offering to whisk passengers over the gridlock for $1,100 per person, and put a “countdown to the closure” clock on its website. JetBlue marketed $4 Carmageddon Fly-Over flights between Long Beach, south of the closure, and Burbank, in the valley. The four flights sold out.

Luring Customers

City officials are advising residents to stay out of their cars, as they did during the 1984 Olympics, when there were concerns that smog and traffic would interfere with the Games. Local bars and restaurants, worried the strategy will work again, started the website to lure customers with discounts and so-called CarmaCoupons.

The shutdown could blunt sales at Toyota of Santa Monica, said Billy Rinker, general sales manager at the dealership, which claims to be the top U.S. seller of Prius hybrids.

“July should be a good month because there’s five weekends this year,” Rinker said. “But on the Westside, Carpocalypse or Carmaggedon or whatever it’s called probably means we’ll lose that weekend.”

The freeway is closing to allow workers to demolish the 80-foot-high Mulholland Bridge that spans the 405. It’s part of a five-year, $1 billion project to add a carpool lane on the freeway between U.S. 101 in the San Fernando Valley and Interstate 10 on the Westside.

‘Massive Impact’

The stretch, which handles 500,000 vehicles on a typical weekend, is the third busiest in the U.S., according to Inrix Inc.’s Nation Traffic Report Card. The California Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, expects construction to be finished in 2013.

“In places like Los Angeles, where the transportation system is operating at or near capacity, even minor disruptions can have a massive impact,” said Brian Taylor, a transportation professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Motorists who typically drive the 405 will be directed 38 miles east through downtown Los Angeles. Sepulveda Boulevard, a main thoroughfare that parallels the closed section of freeway, will be marked for residents only, said Lt. Andy Neiman, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

“If you’re not currently planning ahead to make alternate travel arrangements, your choices will limit you to staying home to avoid the congestion that is expected,” Neiman said.

Helicopters Booked

Police and fire units will be positioned in the area to ensure quick responses to emergencies. The Los Angeles Fire Department will add 15 fire engines and six ambulances, said Cecco Secci, the department’s public information officer.

Time Warner Cable Inc., the area’s largest cable TV television provider, will put repair crews up in Westside hotels so they can respond to calls, according to spokesman Jim Gordon. Airlines are advising employees and travelers to allow extra time to reach airports. Prime Time Shuttle, an airport transportation service, will have its entire fleet of 150 vans on the road to handle expected heavier-than-usual business at LAX as travelers avoid driving.

As for the $4 JetBlue flights -- $5 for extra legroom -- they’ll last 35 to 45 minutes, about what it would take to drive between Long Beach and Burbank under normal conditions, according to the Forest Hills, New York-based carrier.

Waze, which has backing from Blue Run Ventures, Magma Venture Partners, Vertex Venture Capital and Qualcomm Ventures, will provide real-time traffic data to local television station KABC-TV, and has put its links on the station’s website.

$4.05 Combo

The Arclight Cinemas 16-screen multiplex in Sherman Oaks, at the interchange of the 405 and 101 freeways, has recorded “brisk” sales of tickets for films showing over the weekend despite its location, said Gretchen McCourt, an executive vice president at Arclight and Pacific Theaters. Movie-goers will be able to see the closed freeway from the lobby windows, and buy a $4.05 food-and-drink combination in honor of the shutdown.

At Los Angeles-based Briles Wing, Lance Strumpf, chief pilot and general manager, said three of the company’s four helicopters are booked for the weekend. With the volume of inquiries, he expects the fourth to be busy as well.

“It’s definitely a viable alternative that people are taking advantage of,” Strumf said. “Everything from airline travelers to wealthy people up in Bel-Air who are landlocked and trying to get to their weekend retreats.”

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