LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles motorists on Friday faced a final countdown to "Carmageddon," the epic traffic jam expected as transit crews begin to close a key stretch of the 405 Freeway during the evening rush hour.
The California Highway Patrol said commuter traffic was normal for a Friday morning through the Sepulveda Pass -- the 405 section slated for the unprecedented weekend shutdown -- with lighter-than usual congestion compared to other weekdays.
"There is nothing out of the ordinary for the morning commute," said CHP officer Francisco Villalobos, a spokesman for the agency's Traffic Management Center. "People are, for lack of a better term, behaving out there."
But authorities said the situation will likely deteriorate once work crews start to block on-ramps and connectors to the 405 at 6 p.m. local time, with full closure of all traffic lanes slated to go into effect by midnight.
Plans call for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, to reopen the 405, including ramps and connectors, by 6 a.m. on Monday, Villalobos said.
So while authorities have publicized the closure as a 53-hour operation, traffic restrictions will actually run for as long as 60 hours in all.
The freeway shutdown will allow crews to demolish a bridge as part of a $1 billion freeway-widening project designed to add carpool lanes through the Sepulveda Pass.
The 10-mile section of freeway slated for closure is used by about 500,000 vehicles on a typical summer weekend, Metro said.
Spillover effects of the closure, with motorists forced to find alternate routes for one of L.A.'s most heavily traveled north-south corridors, are expected to bring gridlock to the surrounding area and backups to nearly a dozen other freeways in a region tightly woven together by high-speed traffic.
Anticipating a traffic mess that residents of America's second-largest city have dubbed "Carmageddon," L.A. officials opened an emergency operations center, and Metro has offered free service on 26 bus lines and three light-rail lines.
Officials also recruited a number of celebrities for public service messages and Twitter campaigns urging motorists to help ease the crunch by walking, riding bicycles, taking public transit or just avoiding the area altogether.
Among those carrying the anti-"Carmageddon"" banner were pop star Lady Gaga, newly cast "Two and a Half Men" star Ashton Kutcher and actor Erik Estrada, who played motorcycle cop Frank "Ponch" Poncherello on the TV series "CHiPs."
Leisure destinations outside Los Angeles sought to cash in on the traffic angst by offering special "Escape Carmageddon" discount packages.
In an "Over-the-405" promotion launched by JetBlue Airways, the discount airline offered special nonstop flights between Long Beach and Burbank for Saturday priced at just $4 each way, taxes and fees included. The 600 seats for the four flights sold out within three hours on Wednesday, the airline said.
Charter helicopter companies are selling air "taxi" service to Los Angeles International Airport for well-heeled L.A. travelers fearful of missing pre-booked airline flights to more distant destinations.
For those seeking a more casual bird's eye view of the traffic carnage, and the dose of schadenfreude that goes with it, Adventure Helicopter Tours is offering 45-minute flights over the area, complete with champagne, for $400 per couple.
Writing and reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan