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Workers brace for 405 closure as emergency prepartions are being made to ease the burden of commuting throughout Los Angeles

By Daniel Schonhaut

July 5, 2011 4:22 a.m.

For the more than 1,000 people who are scheduled to work at university hospitals and clinics the weekend of the 405 Freeway closure, longer commute times could become a big problem.

“Everyone is concerned,” said Linda Munden, a maternal management technician who buses to UCLA from Culver City.

Munden counts herself among the lucky ones, meaning she expects her half-hour bus ride could take only an hour longer during the closure. Others are expecting two- or three-hour commutes.

While no one knows exactly how bad conditions will get, city officials are forecasting a traffic nightmare from July 15 to 18 when a 10-mile stretch of the 405 is blocked off for construction near UCLA.

Determined to keep medical services running smoothly, hospital administrators are preparing for a worst-case scenario of absolute gridlock.

On June 24, UCLA sent a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority requesting the use of emergency lanes during the closure to shuttle staff in and out of Westwood and Santa Monica.

Yet city officials denied the request for fear that allowing such an exception might lead to “a landslide of additional requests,” said William Dunne, director of emergency preparedness and security services for the UCLA Health System.

In search of a backup solution, Dunne and a team of hospital executives called local hotels to book rooms for faculty, staff and families of patients who hope to steer clear of a lengthy commute.

Hundreds of rooms in university hospitals and on the Hill will also be made available.

At the same time, some nonessential surgeries are being rescheduled to avoid conflicting with the closure, and the university will have helicopters ready to fly in doctors and patients for emergency operations.

Speaking shortly after the city rejected UCLA’s request for emergency lane use, a frustrated Dunne said he had contacted various transportation and law enforcement agencies and had gotten little in terms of a response.

“I think we’ve reached out over and over again to try and effectively collaborate,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had very good reciprocal collaboration, and that’s challenging.”

Shannon O’Kelley, chief operating officer for the hospital system, put a more positive spin on the situation.

“This is giving us a great opportunity to refine and hone our disaster planning,” he said. “UCLA will rally to the occasion.”

O’Kelley was also quick to praise the efforts of local police and emergency servicemen, with whom he said communication has been “brilliant.”

The 405 shutdown is being coordinated by an alphabet soup of city agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department, Metro, the California Department of Transportation and emergency medical services.

A spokesman for the LAPD declined to comment on specific plans for maintaining hospital operations during the closure. Such plans are still being discussed, he said.

Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said he was also unable to discuss specifics on the transportation plans. He gave a general appraisal of the project, however.

“This is a billion-dollar investment that will benefit UCLA when it’s done,” Sotero said. “We call it short-term pain for long-term gain.”

The freeway will reopen the morning of July 18 after demolition of the Mulholland Drive bridge, according to a Metro statement. The whole project, which is scheduled for completion in 2013, will add a carpool lane and other capacity enhancements to the 405.

As to whether the demolition will finish on time, Sotero said, “It will, don’t worry.”

Sotero, like a number of other public officials, recommended people stay home or avoid the area during the closure if they can.

For those who can’t ““ including the weekend staff of the UCLA medical system ““ Metro has posted suggested routes and recommends checking traffic conditions in real-time.

Chatting about the closure during their lunch break at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, clinical care partners Queen Davis, Helen Carr and Beverly Triggs had three different plans of action.

Davis said she’ll take the weekend off. Carr will leave her home at 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday to work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts.

Triggs’ intention?

“Pray.”

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