The Road to “Carmageddon”

It’s the afternoon of Friday, July 15th, so if you are a sentient human being living anywhere near Los Angeles, you must surely know that in a matter of hours “Carmageddon” will be upon us. That’s the condition of local traffic that is expected upon the demolition of the bridge that takes Mulholland Drive over the stretch of the 405 Freeway (known to us old timers as the San Diego Freeway) that connects the San Fernando Valley and the West Side of Los Angeles through the Sepulveda Pass in the Hollywood Hills, to allow construction of a new bridge that will accommodate the new, widened freeway that is now in the process of reconstruction. This will require a complete shut-down of the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass in both directions for the coming weekend. Since the 405 is a major north-south traffic artery serving the west side of the Los Angeles basin, all hell is expected to break loose trafficwise during the coming weekend. What will actually happen is yet to be seen. Sometimes our fellow Angelenos can surprise you — like during the Olympics when a foreshadowed gridlock did not materialize, and traffic was better than normal.

All this, however, has stimulated a tidal wave of nostalgia on the part of your obedient servant whose memory runneth as far back as the olden days in which there was no San Digo Freeway, and the winding road through Sepulveda Pass was a nifty place in which to take a ride in a sports car. Oh, yes! We confess to having done that in a Nash-Healey roadster in the 1950s. And a fine ride it was. But we digress.

What the upcoming Carmageddon bids fair to demonstrate, however, is some truisms about highways, their construction and maintenance, and the acquisition of rights of way for them. To start with the present, and work backward in time, this project is an outstanding illustration of the absurdity of NIMBYism. The relevant stretch of the 405 runs through one of the most affluent areas (Sherman Oaks, Bel Air and Brentwood), so when the plans were announced, the predictable happened — local NIMBYs came out in force, complaining bitterly about the desecration of their rustic ambiance, the aesthetics of the new bridge design, and demanding a revised plan. Never mind that that original plan would have required only a one-day freeway shutdown, and would have saved millions of dollars. But guess what? CalTrans, well known for its arrogance, particularly when it comes to using eminent domain to roll over modest, minority communities that wind up in the way of its projects, somehow grew meek and compliant, and changed the execution of its 405 widening project. Changed how? Well, it turns out that the new, nimbyfied approach is substantially more expensive, will take longer, and will severely inconvenience the general public. So much for that precious ambience of the Sherman Oaks NIMBYs.

When land was being taken by eminent domain for the 405 right of way in the 1950s, it gave rise to the notorious People v. Symons case in which the California Supreme Court denied Mr. Symons compensation for the diminution in value of his home, that resulted from the taking of a part of his land. The freeway lanes, held the court, were built on land taken from others, so in spite of an incontestable diminution in the value of the Symons home, which wound up next to the freeway embankment, and had a part of its yard taken to accommodate a cul de sac required by the new freeway, Mr. Symons would receive no severance damages.

That would have been bad enough, but to add insult to injury, the court announced that it saw it as its duty to keep compensation in eminent domain cases down, lest compensating condemnees too liberally (i.e., for all their demonstrable economic losses that were incontestably suffered), would bring about an “embargo” on the construction of public projects in California. In fact, that was the period of time during which CalTrans was stashing annual surpluses that ran into the multiple nine figures annually.

Not only that, but California law of that time was shockingly one-sided: when it came to special benefits that are offset against severance damages, said California courts, it didn’t matter where the public project was located; it was only when it came to severance damages, that the project’s location on land taken from the compensation-seeking condemnee became decisive. Our courts were untroubled by this shocking lack of even-handedness on their part, and over the years repeated the “embargo” business several times.

Of course, there was no basis for any of this. In 1976, the California legislature repealed the Symons rule (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. Sec, 1263.420 (b)), but in the ensuing 35 years no “embargo” on public project had to be declared. When public projects had to be cancelled in California, it was not for lack of money but because of popular opposition (as in the famous San Francisco “Freeway Revolt”) or because of illegal conduct by condemning bodies.

So stay tuned, and before too long we’ll let you know how Los Angeles coped with that Carmageddon.

Follow up. Guess what? We were right in thinking of our fellow Angelenos as sensible and capable of rising to the occasion. As of mid-day of “Carmageddon Saturday,” July 16th, all is well. Traffic is down, and there is no gridlock in sight anywhere. People are staying away from the Sepulveda Pass area, and Jet Blue Airlines will fly you over the Sepulveda Pass, from Long Beach to Burbank, for a mere $4. Is that civic-minded class, or what?

So stay tuned and we will let you know how it all works out.

And you won’t believe this, but today’s Los Angeles Times ran an editorial, The Mulholland Bridge That Might Have Been, July 16, 2011 (click here ), chastizing the NIMBYs — gently to be sure — for their selfishness and arrogant stupidity in inflicting this unnecessary burden on the city.

But hidden in the Times editorial is another, more important point. The reason the highway builders caved in to the NIMBYs, suggests the Times, was the not-so-implicit threat of litigation under environmental laws and God only knows what else. If you are given to rational thinking, the question virtually asks itself: wouldn’t a lawsuit like that be deemed frivolous by a rational judiciary, and promptly thrown out of Court? In a rational society, yes. But when it comes to environmental laws and their enforcement, who says that California, where eberybody has standing to litigate everything, is a rational society?

So stay tuned for further Carmageddon news — if any.

Further your affiant sayeth naught.