Los Angeles was still shrouded in darkness as Mayor Karen Bass prepared to give her first news briefing of the day Monday at the state Department of Transportation’s traffic nerve center, a few hundred yards from City Hall.
This address, filmed in front of a bank of screens showing traffic already beginning to snarl in and around downtown, was intended to be carried live on the 6 a.m. local news and replayed in snippets for Angelenos who might still turn on the TV before leaving home.
“I want to speak directly to the 300,000 people who would normally drive on this stretch of the 10 and to those who live, work or have appointments or schools in the area: As we made clear yesterday, this was a huge fire, and the damage will not be fixed in an instant,” Bass told the crowd of cameras.
While she stood at the lectern, a taped interview with Ryan Seacrest aired on KIIS-FM for those already on the road. Speaking to Seacrest, Bass hit similar messaging, urging downtown workers to telecommute if they could, and talked about the time it may take to repair the overpass damaged by fire Saturday.
As the Monday morning commute got underway, Bass’ aim was simple: Ensure that the denizens of her heavily car-dependent metropolis were aware that a major fire had closed a crucial section of the 10 Freeway, setting the stage for potential traffic chaos.
Since Bass took the helm of the nation’s second-largest city in December, she has been confronted with a school strike and a historic tropical storm. But 11 months into a relatively placid first year, the indefinite closure of a vital piece of civic infrastructure presents a new, potentially thorny challenge for the mayor.
Much of what happens next — repairs to a state-maintained freeway, possibly using federal dollars — will be out of her direct control. But that doesn’t mean she won’t be held responsible.
Angelenos have a deep emotional connection to their roadways. And anyone who’s ever had a normally dependable commute upended by a lengthy detour in traffic purgatory can tell you about the frustration and seething anger that an extended disruption will probably bring.
Bass will need to keenly utilize the mayoral bully pulpit and other unofficial levers to move the ball forward.
“Her job — which so far she’s done very well — is to galvanize, bring together and keep the pressure on in the right way to rebuild properly and efficiently, as quickly as possible,” said Robin Kramer, who served as a chief of staff to former mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Kramer said Bass will need to make sure that government officials at the city, state and federal levels remain focused on the urgent need for repair work.
Kramer was a deputy mayor in Riordan’s office in 1994, when the Northridge earthquake damaged segments of the 10 Freeway, on a vital stretch that connects downtown with the Westside. In the wake of that disaster, Kramer said, Riordan pushed for government agencies to do things differently, ensuring that, among other things, the construction contractor would receive performance bonuses if the work were completed on budget and on time — or even better, ahead of schedule.
The contractor worked seven days a week, including holidays. Eighty-four days after the quake, during a ceremony attended by Vice President Al Gore and Gov. Pete Wilson, the freeway reopened, with the contractor finishing ahead of the deadline, The Times reported.
With the sun now aglow Monday over downtown Los Angeles, Bass retreated to the glass-walled green room adjacent to the briefing area for a series of live radio spots. She spoke to NPR affiliate LAist at around 6:50 a.m., reached more commuters on news station KNX at about 7:15 a.m. and 20 minutes later did another interview on KBLA 1580, an AM radio station targeting Black and progressive listeners.
The mayor paced by the floor-to-ceiling windows as she did the interviews on a cellphone, looking out at the city and the edge of the 101 Freeway.
She also employed less traditional messaging efforts during the weekend, sending an amber alert-style phone message Sunday night and doing a freeway-focused Instagram live with actor and comedian Yvette Nicole Brown earlier in the day.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Saturday to help expedite the work on the milelong section of heavily trafficked freeway, which is a key east-west route through downtown. Bass has been working with state and federal officials as Caltrans moves to repair the badly damaged overpass. Newsom was in L.A. Sunday and Monday, at one point walking the damaged stretch of freeway with Bass and other local officials.
Former state Assemblymember Richard Katz said Bass is doing a good job in conveying both the urgency surrounding the freeway closure and the lack of an immediate timeline for reopening it.
“The lessons through all of this is to be transparent, to not over-promise,” Katz added.
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Katz served as a Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member during the first “Carmageddon” — the 2011 closure of a 10-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway from the 101 to the 10.
At the time, politicians feared that the massive 36-hour shutdown would trigger gridlock on surrounding freeways and surface streets, but the doomsday scenario never materialized as many people stayed home.
Katz said that one key difference between “Carmageddon” and now, as well as the closure of the freeways after the 1994 earthquake, is that there are more transit alternatives for riders, including rail options such as the east-to-west E Line.
Another difference from 2011 is that the city and county had months to prepare for the shutdown, while the current closure is an emergency, said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles County supervisor and L.A. City Council member who helped popularize the phrase “Carmageddon” at the time. Bass and her counterparts have had to react to Saturday’s fire in real time, without the benefit of weeks of public warnings.
In both instances, politicians warned the public to find alternative routes.
A snappy doomsday phrase helped spread the word in 2011. For this roadway crisis, Yaroslavsky offered: “I-10-Mageddon.”