The Presidential Traffic Jam
By Hillarie Waadt
from Los Angeles,CA
The Presidential Traffic Jam
Thursday, October 20th 2005, President Bush was scheduled to attend a Republican Party fundraising dinner somewhere in West Los Angeles (it was later to be revealed Bel Air specifically). The morning newscasts included an advisory about street closures around the 405 Freeway and Sunset Boulevard between the hours of 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM that afternoon and 6:00 AM and 10:00 AM the following morning (I’m not positive about the AM times). I received the same email twice:
“Bush Visits Southland Today (As reported by KTLA)
Roads in the area of the San Diego (405) Freeway and Sunset Boulevard To Be Closed From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.”
The real story was that Governor Schwarzenegger wouldn’t be attending the event because he felt it would divert funds from his upcoming initiatives election, but being one of the millions that drive to and from work on the 405 and have to pass the Sunset exit every day, the potential traffic quagmire was my concern. I’m not going to launch into a diatribe enumerating the parallels between freeway traffic and political gridlock, logistical inefficiencies, or the pristine, un-cut insanity of it all. I’ll just leave it at a quote from Less than Zero: “People in LA [and elsewhere] are afraid to merge”. The statement “the roads in the area of the 405 Freeway and Sunset Boulevard” implies they intersect somehow, which I think defies at least a few laws of physics and more importantly is infuriatingly vague. I called the West LA California Highway Patrol office. The “guy” who answered the phone said that he didn’t know why they made that statement on the news; it was going to be like any other motorcade, funeral procession, or just after an accident has cleared, and they weren’t planning on closing any streets. He said he didn’t watch the news and he’s had calls with people saying all kinds of things.
In retrospect that makes sense, but at the moment it just irritated me more. I called the Sacramento CHP Communication Office and was given the telephone numbers to the Traffic Management Center and the Cal Trans traffic report. I called the TMC and asked the officer who answered the phone if there were going to be any Freeway on-ramps closed because of the president’s dinner. First he asked where I was calling from. (I can understand the security risks and the need for classified information.) I told him I worked in Brentwood, but I refrained from explaining to him that I work on the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente very near the Federal Building. If there’s a protest or event in the area, getting home can resemble a Homeric tale, and although it’s only an hour or two or three, sitting in your car it’s more than a lifetime. I was just trying to find out if there were going to be any closures or detours. He said they weren’t planning anything; possibly the LAPD was.
Then I called KTLA and asked a woman on the news desk if they had any specific information about on-ramps being closed. She said the statement said the streets around the 405 and Sunset, between 4:00 PM and 7:00 PM . I didn’t correct her mistake, though once again physics was being forsaken. I told her that I had spoken to the CHP and traffic management and neither was planning on closing any streets. Where did they get their information? She explained that it was from a statement issued by the White House.
Then I called NBC 4 LA, the station I saw the report on. The man I spoke to said that they couldn’t give specific information, and of course none of the agencies were going to admit there were going to be road closures. He said he called the news desk earlier to verify (he must have taken other calls besides mine), and they said the streets around the 405 and Sunset area would be closed and he hoped he wasn’t too confusing. I replied, “Well, actually that wasn’t very helpful. I don’t want to know where the president is going; just if any freeway on-ramps will be closed.” He said--and I am paraphrasing, because I was so irritated I wasn’t really listening to him--that basically because of security they couldn’t give out specific information and I could call City Hall and complain if I wanted.
When I calmed down for a second, the motorcade explanation started to register. The police escorts go ahead a few blocks and stop traffic so the convoy can pass and then they let traffic through; they don’t actually block streets off with barricades indefinitely. So if they had said be advised if you see the police stopping traffic to let the motorcade through in the West LA area near the Sunset exit of the 405 this evening, you’ll know why. This is very different than there will be road closures.
By 3:30 in the afternoon, traffic was ramping up to rush hour density prematurely, presumably because of the newscasts this morning. I have a scenic view of the intersection of Wilshire and San Vicente, eastward down to the 405 at Sepulveda. It’s a ritual every day: we start looking out the window around 3:00 to see what traffic is like and try to predict what it will be like when we go home. We start monitoring traffic at around 1:30 on “special occasions” like this one, or if it rains, there’s a bomb scare, a scheduled protest or an organized die-in protesting our initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Protestors weren’t marching and carrying signs, they were laying down in the intersection of Wilshire and San Vicente to simulate war casualties. People in my office were lined up at the window watching them as if we had soundproof box seats to a baseball game. They weren’t a symbol unfortunately; they were a spectacle and an obstacle. I remember thinking how much I admired and appreciated that they were willing to take the time to exercise our freedom of speech, but did it have to be late in the afternoon on a weekday? Today was the same thing, one pod of cubicles over; there were five people in a row, mini-blinds raised up for an unimpaired view looking out at the traffic.
The Presidential Traffic Jam 2005 will probably get more press than the dozens of people who lay in the street that day. We had the whole mess blamed on Bush by late afternoon. It was ridiculous enough to be from the Bush school of vacuity, school of the un-thought. It’s like the un-cola--it’s never quite like the real thing.The next day on the morning news the advisory was given again, and this time the Secret Service was sited as being responsible for the road closures statement, but it was sort of a non-event by this point. I actually missed the traffic both days, but I heard reports of reports that there were roadblocks and people were stuck in traffic for hours. I heard on the radio that some kids missed seeing the Wizard of Oz, a field trip as reward for academic achievement, because of the President’s motorcade (sans the wizard, apparently). Traffic caused by traffic coverage, the news caused by its report prior to its occurrence. It’s some sort of Neo-Post-Modern-Warholesque irony to the nth power of infinity. The answer can only be an irrational number.