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Hwy. 54 Extension Opens After Years of Delays : Freeways: Stalled by environmental lawsuit, roadway connecting Interstates 5 and 805 is completed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Following years of construction delays caused by an environmental lawsuit, a South Bay Freeway extension connecting Interstates 5 and 805 was opened to the public Monday, the California Department of Transportation announced.

The project provides motorists with a six-lane extension of California 54 as an alternative to using surface streets while traveling east and west between the two interstates.

“The importance of the completion of this extension is that it takes much of the traffic off city streets and puts it on the freeway where it belongs,” said Jerry Smith, a Caltrans director of construction.

Eastbound traffic between interstates 5 and 805 was opened Monday, including the on-ramp to California 54 east from the southbound I-5, said Smith. “The westbound to northbound (lanes) should be open by midday (today),” he said.

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Completion of the highway extension ended a long period of construction delays, a Caltrans official said.

The federal courts permitted only minor work on the roadway from July, 1987 to April, 1988, after the Sierra Club and the League for Coastal Protection filed a lawsuit against the Army Corp of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration and various state and county agencies who co-sponsored the project.

The lawsuit claimed that the Corps of Engineers failed to obtain 188 acres of adjacent wetlands as a preservation area for the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail, two endangered bird species affected by the project.

The suit was settled in May, 1988, after the federal government acquired the land from the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co.

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The construction delay cost the state about $10 million, according to Smith.

Constructing the California 54 extension is only one phase of a four-phase Caltrans project to improve I-5, Smith said.

The first three phases, including the completion of an eight-lane freeway detour on I-5 between 24th Street and Sweetwater River; construction of bridges connecting I-5 and Delaware 54 north of the Sweetwater River; and various improvements to the Sweetwater Channel, have already been completed.

“The remaining portion of the project should be completed by spring, 1992,” Smith said. Yet to be completed is the construction of I-5 between E Street and the Sweetwater Channel and bridges that will connect Delaware 54 with I-5 south of the Sweetwater River.

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Signs wrapped like Christmas packages, directing motorists from California 54 to interstates 805 and 5 were unwrapped during the opening ceremony amid holiday music from the Sweetwater High School Band and remarks from state and local elected officials.


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