You may recall the plot of the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The storyline blames cartoon characters for dismantling L.A. metro’s vast Pacific Electric Red Car rail transit system of the early 1900s and sticking us with our insane freeways instead. Life imitates art. Los Angeles has been at its Toon Town best the last couple of weeks, rife with indignation that our fair-haired child to the south, Orange County, is receiving a much bigger slice of freeway improvement funds from recently passed statewide bond issues. In a stellar media moment, one afternoon last month L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even waded among stalled cars on Wilshire Boulevard and implored rush hour victims to contact their state government and demand remedy. It was far and away the best “Roger Rabbit” moment to date for the budding Villaraigosa Administration.
Why not? The 405 through the Sepulveda Pass is a mess, and a couple of token carpool lane projects hardly address the issue. And what about the 405-101 interchange in Sherman Oaks? Some years ago the Daily News did a front page expose on the Fifties-era infrastructure – at the time the third busiest interchange in the entire state and one of the most outdated. Despite some modest improvements, it is still a far cry from the state-of-the-art intersection the collision of the 405 and 101 demands. (You may want to check out the Harbor Freeway 110–Century Freeway 105 interchange to see what can be done.)
How did the Sepulveda Pass become such a mess? It all started with a congenial President named Eisenhower, the fellow who presided over D-Day. One lesson of WWII was that our road system was woefully inadequate from a national security standpoint – the ability to quickly move troops and equipment. The Eisenhower Administration conceived and sold to Congress the Interstate Highway System. It was massive, and to this day remains probably the biggest transportation infrastructure project in the history of the human race. And it was not without huge adverse impact. In rural areas, the new freeways bypassed and sapped the economic vitality of myriad small towns – a kind of precursor to the “Wal-Mart” effect. In urban areas, whole neighborhoods were uprooted to make way for transportation corridors. (Indeed, my neighbor’s house in Santa Monica was moved to its current site from the path of the 10 in the early Sixties.) Even the dead were not spared – the 405 ran right through the VA cemetery and hundreds of veterans’ graves had to be exhumed and reburied.
Freeway projects everywhere were sacrosanct through the Fifties and early Sixties. What happened next didn’t involve cartoon characters, but perhaps many entertainment personalities nonetheless. Seems the Interstate Highway System Master Plan called for the “Beverly Hills Freeway.” It was to depart the 405 near Santa Monica Boulevard and roughly follow the Boulevard east to the 101 in Hollywood. Of all the cities in all the land, the first to have the political clout to stop a link in Eisenhower’s Interstate System was none other than Beverly Hills. (Now you know why their city, and particularly West Hollywood next door, is so damn far from the nearest freeway.)
That is not all. The Master Plan also called for the Beverly Glen Freeway, an additional hop over the Santa Monica Mountains roughly equidistant between the Cahuenga and Sepulveda passes. It too was nixed.
This is not all. Every wonder why PCH is such a decrepit, unsafe and capacity-inadequate artery? The Interstate Highway System Master Plan called for a freeway originating at the McClure Tunnel and connecting all the way to Oxnard, not replacing PCH, but running parallel in the hills above akin to the 5’s passage through San Clemente. That too was nixed.
In aggregate, the 405 carries not only its designed load, but also the load of three cancelled freeways. Decades ago federal traffic engineers cautioned that canceling links in the Interstate Highway System was ill-advised. As its name implies, it is a “system,” and the master design balanced flow within a given region. Perhaps rightly so, we chose to save communities and virgin hillsides at the cost of congestion.
Perhaps it is time for a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Not only did our cartoon city fathers dismantle the Pacific Electric mass transit system, they systematically dismembered its proposed freeway system replacement as well.