It took congressional intervention, concessions from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the rerouting of 250 million vehicles and almost three years of construction, but the long-awaited interchange between the Artesia and Harbor freeways should be completed by Friday.
Part of the interchange is already in use. A ramp that was opened Thursday allows eastbound traffic on Artesia Boulevard to flow freely onto the Artesia (91) Freeway for the first time since the Artesia was built more than a decade ago. The interchange's remaining three ramps will open June 7, officials of the California Department of Transportation said.
The connector will alleviate peak-hour congestion on the freeways and streets caused by cars lining up behind traffic signals on Artesia Boulevard, state and local officials said. During some rush hours, motorists have waited as long as 10 minutes to get on or off the freeways, they said.
Caltrans estimates that between 250,000 and 350,000 vehicles pass through the area on the Harbor or Artesia freeways on a typical weekday. Caltrans has dubbed the $48-million project the "Gateway to the South Bay" because of the role it is expected to play in moving traffic between that area and neighboring communities.
Complaints About Safety
Residents and officials from Los Angeles, Gardena and Carson, as well as Caltrans engineers, have long complained that the lack of an interchange posed serious hazards to commuters and residents.
"This cleans up the whole area," said Richard Decker, resident Caltrans engineer in Gardena. "This should really improve the flow."
The project also includes improvements to the interchange between the Harbor and San Diego freeways. That part of the project has been completed except for a ramp connecting the northbound San Diego (Interstate 405) to the southbound Harbor (Interstate 110). The ramp is scheduled to be reopened June 14.
The San Diego-Harbor improvements include a special ramp for trucks traveling from the northbound San Diego to the northbound Harbor, as well as additional lanes for passenger cars using the interchange, which is just south of the new Artesia-Harbor interchange.
Each Affects Other
"The two projects really cannot be separated," Decker said. "What happens on one of them can, and has, affected traffic on the other."
The new interchange connecting the Artesia and Harbor freeways includes completion of the half-mile "missing link" between them. California 91 now extends 56 miles, from Interstate 15 in Riverside to the Harbor Freeway in the Los Angeles "city strip" that connects downtown with San Pedro and the port.
The missing link forced thousands of cars to pour onto Artesia Boulevard and other nearby surface streets after the Artesia Freeway was built in the early 1970s. It had been left uncompleted because of rising construction costs and the reluctance of state officials to approve money for new freeways during the administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.
The project later won state approval and also qualified for federal funds after Congress added the Harbor Freeway to the federal interstate system in 1978 at the request of Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Long Beach). But construction was delayed again when federal money was cut off by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA blocked the funds in 1980, by imposing sanctions against California for its failure to adopt an automobile emissions-inspection policy.
The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, a regional transportation advisory group, along with a coalition of local leaders, eventually persuaded the EPA to exempt the interchange project from its sanctions because of the safety problem the incomplete Artesia Freeway posed. Construction on the interchange got under way in September, 1982. The Legislature has since adopted a smog inspection program.
During a ceremony at the site last week, the nearly completed interchange was dedicated as the Edmond J. Russ Freeway Interchange. Russ, a former Gardena mayor who attended the ceremony, headed the transportation commission's Route 91/110 Task Force, which pressed for completion of the freeway. Local officials, including Anderson, credited Russ with keeping the interchange project alive.
Completion of the interchange at Artesia Boulevard and improvements to the San Diego-Harbor interchange come about 18 months ahead of schedule and cost about $4 million more than the contractor, Kasler Corp., originally bid. About 92% of the project's cost is being paid from federal funds; the rest comes from the state.
Caltrans officials said the swift completion was because of the size and experience of the contractor, which has completed many highways and airports in California. They said the extra costs arose because Caltrans underestimated the amount of construction materials required. Kasler will be paid the additional amount.
Although Caltrans estimates that 250 million vehicles were detoured for the construction at the two interchanges over three years, officials from Gardena, Carson, Los Angeles and Caltrans said few motorists have complained.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the area around the Artesia-Harbor interchange, last week praised Caltrans for completing the project with a minimum of inconvenience to the public. Caltrans said the work was the smoothest in years.
The new ramps not yet open will connect eastbound Artesia Boulevard with the northbound and southbound Harbor Freeway, and the northbound Harbor with westbound Artesia Boulevard.
In addition to the new ramps, the project included building 16 bridges and widening nine others, widening the Harbor Freeway between the San Diego and Redondo Beach Boulevard, and building ramps for the 190th Street exit.
Officials estimate the project involved 27 lane miles of new pavement, 80,000 tons of asphalt concrete, 8.5 million pounds of reinforcing steel and 20 different traffic stages.
"We don't get many of these," said Caltrans District Director Heinz Heckeroth, reflecting on the speedy completion of the project and its wide public support. "We revel in the opportunity."