Orange County Branch Newsletter

August 2011

President's Message

Lessons from Carmageddon

By Ziad Mazboudi, PE

July 16 and 17, 2011 were supposed to be one of the worst traffic nightmares that LA has ever faced, due to the 10 mile closure of the Interstate 405.  The I-405Freeway is traveled by about 500,000 cars a day, and it was expected that all other surface roads and other freeways would face major congestion as a result of the closure.  For months before the closure, the City of LA was preparing the public for the worse, but things worked out pretty well due to the great effort in preparation.  My son called a week before the closure and said that he is flying into Long Beach Airport on Saturday July 16, and asked me to pick him up.  I did not think much about it because Orange County was not supposed to be impacted.  He called on Wednesday asking if I knew anything about Carmageddon, and I told him it should be ok, and not to worry about it.  I drove Saturday morning to the airport and the road was amazingly clear, with barely any traffic or delays, and I arrived in record time from Rancho Santa Margarita to Long Beach.  I was impressed.  Well, it was because many of the people of Los Angeles listened and avoided the roads.  Before I got on the freeway, I looked up the SigAlert map, and to my great pleasure, I saw almost all roads marked green except for the portion of freeway where the I-405 that was closed was marked red. 

As an engineer and a project manager, I have to applaud the City of Los Angeles, Caltrans and specifically Kiewit Infrastructure West for amazing coordination, planning, meticulous scheduling and implementation that went like clockwork.  Apparently, a $6,000 penalty for every 10 minutes of delay was placed in the contract.  This equates to $864,000 a day.  Well, the great incentive was the $300,000 bonus that the contractor made for finishing work 17 hours early.  What most of the public may not have known was the cost of staffing to deal with the project, including overtime for police, fire department personnel, city and Caltrans staff, and much additional coordination that was needed.  A freeway closure is estimated to cost the local economy $1 million a day.  I am not sure how much impact the economy suffered during the day and a half of closure, but the good news was that people enjoyed staying local, riding bicycles, and going to local parks instead of driving to ones farther out.  Air quality was better in Los Angeles during the July 16 and 17 weekend due to lack of congestion and idling cars.  What was supposed to be a terrible event was not.

So, what did the engineers and project managers do right? Well, they used every tool in the tool box to be ready.  They planned ahead, anticipated every possible scenario, did not assume anything, and had a backup plan for every possible situation.  They used old and new ways to reach out to the public.  They used print media, news media, Facebook, websites, Twitter, and community outreach presentations.  They used the faces of elected officials on TV, and reached out to celebrities to put the word to stay off the street.  Even celebrities who messed up, such as Kim Kardashian, by tweeting the wrong dates after being asked to tweet about the closure, was used as a story to remind people of the correct date.  Jet Blue used the event as a marketing campaign by selling $4 tickets to fly from Long Beach to Burbank.  They were sold out in 4 hours.

All this effort paid off to the City because the thorough preparation and the early completion without incidents made them look great.  I smiled on my way to the airport listening to the radio when the two hosts were saying that there was nothing to talk about regarding Carmageddon, because there were no disasters as a result of the closure. 

I remembered when the 10 Freeway collapsed as a result of the Northridge earthquake and everyone talked about it as if the sky was falling.  Everyone was worried about how long it was going to take to reconstruct it.  It was an equally amazing achievement by C.C. Myers, Inc. of Rancho Cordova who completed the reconstruction of the freeway in 66 days.  That was an amazing feat.  Myers finished 74 days ahead of schedule and earned a $14.8 million bonus.  Great scheduling, coordination and adjustment to the normal construction operation were incorporated into the project to make this happen.

In every project we face challenges, but the best thing to do is keep the public informed, get the word out early, seek input from the people affected and listen to their ideas on possible ways to reduce the impact.  Provide regular updates and make sure to inform of them of major changes to the plan, if any.  The public does not like major projects that impact their normal lives, even when the project result is something they want, but as much as they don’t like expected disruptions, they hate surprises even more when they are already under stress from a large construction project.  You don’t want to be standing in front of City Council when an angry mob is at a council meeting voicing how upset they are about something with your project that caught them by surprise.  If you have a large project that could have significant impact to a large portion of the community, you might want to do things a little differently.  You can set up a website for regular updates and/or use e-mail blasts to keep them informed of progress.  Also, you can set up community meetings before the project starts to present the project details and answer any concerns or questions the public might have.  Another thing you can do is set up a project hotline to receive complaints so that you can better handle and deal with them.  Make someone responsible for responding to all complaints and documenting the issues and that all issues are addressed and prioritized.  Use the media to your advantage by providing adequate resources, maps, info to the media, and regular press releases or updates.  The media could be a great way of getting the word out to the community. 

As engineers, we might not think of ourselves as Public Relations people, but you would be surprised at how much our knowledge of our projects and understanding of various project phases and construction provides us an edge to speak intelligently with the media.  Just be careful about what you say and what you present, and make sure that you clear in advance with your managers what you plan on sharing.  Although each city typically has a Public Information Officer (PIO), it is very common to place the project engineer or project manager on the spot to cover the technical aspects, especially when there is a problem.

This August, we will not hold a luncheon as our ASCE OC/YMF Joint Golf Tournament will be our main event, so we hope you will be joining us on August 5th at Oak Creek Golf Course in Irvine for a joint event with YMF to help raise funds to cover the expenses of the Western Region Conference that was held earlier this year. 

The branch held its annual Board election, and we look forward to seeing Gary Gilbert join the Board in October.  Gary has been a very active ASCE OC member for many years, and the Board is happy to have him join us.

The Orange County branch has seen very positive responses to the electronic newsletter with its new format, and we are always looking forward to articles from our members on various topics of interest to our members.  If you have a project that would be of interest to our members, please submit an article about it.  For example, your article could be on infrastructure related observations you made during a vacation, accompanied by some photos.  By the way, now that we have gone electronic with our newsletter, length of articles is not an issue, and contributing authors could include links to YouTube to make the article even more interesting.  For any question on this topic, you can contact Ziad Mazboudi or Penny Lew.

Finally, we are always looking for advertisers so with the revamping of our website, our electronic newsletter, and our e-mail system, there are a lot of opportunities for companies to reach our members.  Please visit our website,  for more information, or contact our marketing chair Cindy Miller.  Our rates are very competitive and we reach all cities, public agencies, and districts with our material in addition to all of the engineering firms through our membership.  We also welcome sponsors for all of our luncheons and dinner events.

Finally, we hope that you are enjoying the summer and we hope to see you on the Green in Irvine on August 5th!