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From Out of Dim Past Comes a Freeway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It dates back to the days of the Beatles and bell-bottoms, to a time before man walked on the moon.

The job of extending the Costa Mesa Freeway toward the sea has been more than a quarter-century in the making. Indeed, the glacial-paced road project has been so slow to evolve that one local official calls it a “time machine” and a “vestigial remanent” of the past.

But when all is said and done, neither rain nor bureaucrats nor misplaced sewer pipes nor frisky red foxes will keep the long-awaited, long-delayed, brand-new freeway extension from ultimately opening.

Come Tuesday, the road builders should get the last laugh. If all goes according to plan, the final lane markings will be laid down and the barriers will be lifted early in the morning, allowing traffic to flow for the first time onto the 1.1-mile first phase of freeway.

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Caltrans officials say the new strip of asphalt--the first swath of freeway opened in Orange County in more than a decade--will help cut into the crush of cars around the Orange County Fairgrounds and Orange Coast College, ease things a bit for crowds trying to get to Pacific Amphitheater and aid motorists trying to conquer the streets of Costa Mesa.

In recent years, for instance, there were just four bridges crossing the massive ditch that was dug years ago for the highway and then left to the weeds and field mice when money dried up. When the entire, 3.2-mile project is completed in December, 1992, there will be seven.

“It’s going to help traffic circulation throughout that area,” said Albert Miranda, a Caltrans spokesman. “It will take a lot of traffic a lot further down into Costa Mesa and help better distribute it.”

That sort of prediction would seem cause for celebration in all quarters. Caltrans, for its part, has seized the moment and will throw a grand opening ceremony at 9 a.m. today in the middle of the empty expanse of freeway near the Wilson Street overpass.

Such revelry aside, some Costa Mesa officials are holding their breaths.

They worry that the freeway extension will just push the long-time bottleneck at Newport Boulevard’s north entrance deeper into the heart of their downtown business district. When the freeway is finished at the end of next year, traffic will be funneled back onto Newport Boulevard at 19th Street.

On a busy day at the beach, that could mean a bad bout of gridlock.

“We’re adopting a kind of wait-and-see attitude,” noted Costa Mesa Mayor Peter F. Buffa. “Depending on how the traffic is distributed into the downtown, it could be positive, particularly for the businesses. On the other hand, some people think it may basically become a monumental traffic jam.”

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Even state transportation officials acknowledge that problems might pop up.

“If it’s a hot day in the summer and thousands of people are coming down to the beach, traffic is probably going to come to a stop at the signal light at 19th,” Caltrans’Miranda predicted. “You’re still going to have cars backing up on the freeway.”

He noted, however, that such functional deficiencies are hardly the fault of the designers. As originally planned, the extension would have cut a swath all the way to the sea, where it was to have linked up with the planned Coast Freeway.

The Coast Freeway, however, went the way of the dodo bird in the mid-1970s, scuttled by protests from Newport Beach residents. As a result, the Costa Mesa Freeway extension became something of a dead-end road, a highway to nowhere other than the beach.

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In the mid-1970s, lumbering bulldozers were busy slicing the deep chasm in the earth that would be necessary to allow the freeway to reach Newport Beach. But state money disappeared and the earth movers fled. Residents took to derisively calling the ditch “Costa Mesa’s Panama Canal,” or joking that it should be filled with water and stocked with fish.

Perseverance on the part of local officials, however, ultimately paid off. A few years ago, the project finally got voted into the state’s transportation-improvement program or STIP, the wellspring of all highway projects in California. In 1989, work began anew.

After all the delays, the actual job of building the freeway extension has gone reasonably quickly for the general contractor, E.L. Yeager Construction Co. of Santa Ana.

Not everyone, of course, was happy with the progress. Many of the merchants along the freeway’s edges say the construction has scared off customers, and the completed highway may act only to further divert business away from their doors. Their link to economic survival--Newport Boulevard--was narrowed for months to one lane in each direction.

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Fortunately, many of those restrictions have since been lifted, and Newport Boulevard should be back to its original three lanes in each direction by the end of summer.

Then, of course, there are the foxes.

Hunkered in their hole in an embankment beside the newly completed freeway, the family of nine became something of a nationwide media sensation.

Some commentators have even made the canny creatures an emblem for the classic California conundrum. You know: Evil bulldozer building freeway invades territory of fuzzy foxes. That sort of thing.

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In reality, these sorts of foxes have been living by freeways for years, experts say. Seem to like it quite well, in fact, and have no problems dealing with traffic. But animal lovers didn’t hanker to the idea of squashed fox on the freeway. On Sunday, the mother fox and her six pups were captured.

Somehow, it all seems fitting in a twisted sort of Southern California way. Much like the foxes, the little nub of freeway that will be opening Tuesday is something of an anachronism.

Buffa, for one, begins to sound like a cross between H.G. Wells and an archeology professor while voicing his feelings about the drawn-out freeway project.

“I look at the 55 project as a time machine . . . as a vestigial remanent,” he said. “If you remember your anthropology, it’s not unlike the tail bone on Homo sapiens. It’s there for a reason, but the reason is gone. . . .

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“Government has moved so slowly that here we are cutting the ribbon on a segment of freeway that was planned in the ‘50s. But the whole universe has changed since then. . . . I’m concerned that we learn from this experience. We had better learn to build freeways in less than 30 years.”


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