Last Hurrah for Freeway Builders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Gov. Gray Davis and other dignitaries gather next week to open a new segment of the Foothill Freeway in Fontana, they will be marking a construction milestone on probably the last major urban freeway in California's foreseeable future.

The 28-mile stretch of the Foothill Freeway, a $1.1-billion extension from La Verne to San Bernardino, is the state's largest new freeway project since the heyday of highway construction in the 1970s.

The state known for its love affair with the car has all but stopped building freeways because of environmental restrictions, budget shortfalls and conflicts with sprawling urban development. For the most part, state officials say, freeway work is now limited to repairs and lane additions.

The state's last new major freeway, the 17-mile Century Freeway from Norwalk to El Segundo, was also the nation's most expensive, costing $2.2 billion. It was completed in 1993, but only after 30 years of bitter debate and legal wrangling.

A proposed 6.2-mile extension of the Long Beach Freeway through Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno has been bogged down for decades in a legal battle with local opponents, who say the construction will destroy trees, 100-year-old homes and historic charm.

But California Department of Transportation officials have forged ahead with the Foothill Freeway primarily because they say it is sorely needed to serve the burgeoning population in the Inland Empire. And the project also has one critical advantage over others that have been mired in controversy: The route from the San Gabriel Valley to San Bernardino County has been left mostly undeveloped for half a century.

To make way for the highway, Caltrans has moved or demolished fewer than 400 homes and businesses. In contrast, the Century Freeway construction bulldozed more than 8,000 homes. To build the Long Beach Freeway extension, the state must remove 900 homes, including many that are signatures of local architecture.

The first six-mile segment of the Foothill Freeway project--stretching from Rancho Cucamonga to Fontana--is scheduled to open Aug. 20, when Davis cuts a ceremonial ribbon near the interchange with the Ontario Freeway.

The rest of the eight-lane route--including two carpool lanes--is scheduled to open in 2002, extending from the existing Foothill Freeway in La Verne and continuing east through Claremont, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Rialto. The final segment, which is not yet funded, will connect Interstate 15 with Interstate 215 in San Bernardino.

The new route is expected to provide long-needed relief to the congested San Bernardino and Pomona freeways, the other two major east-west routes across the region.

When the project is completed, Caltrans officials say, the era of massive freeway construction in California will be dead. That means that dozens of other proposed freeway routes that have been collecting dust on the state's construction drawing boards will remain merely concepts. That includes the proposed Whitnall-Malibu Freeway, cutting along the floor of the San Fernando Valley, and the Reseda-to-the-Sea Freeway.

Instead, Caltrans will put a greater emphasis on improving the efficiency of existing freeways.

To increase capacity, Caltrans crews have already installed hundreds of pavement sensors and remote control cameras on freeways to monitor traffic. Fleets of tow trucks have been deployed to clear accidents and move traffic along faster.

"We are always going to carry our car culture label," said William "Bill" Leonard, a former member of the California Transportation Commission. "We just have to be smarter at how we handle that."

Still, freeway traffic will continue to worsen as the state's population increases, probably forcing more motorists to abandon their cars and use alternatives to get around.

"We are going to have to look at an integrated transportation system that includes many different options for people, such as mass transit, walking and biking," said Amy Coggin, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transit Assn.

Complaints About Dust and Noise

If the new, improved Foothill Freeway is California's last major highway, it will not be remembered as the state's easiest construction project.

It has generated giant dust clouds propelled by gusting Santa Ana winds, a rodent infestation and neighborhood complaints about noise and traffic tie-ups.

"We've tried to please everyone but we can't," said Rick Holland, a Caltrans spokesman.

The project has been on the drawing board since 1949. In the 1960s, Caltrans signed agreements with the seven cities along the route, designating land for the freeway. But the recession of the 1970s and other funding problems knocked the project off the state's priority list. In the 1980s, the Foothill Freeway extension came back to life after several studies showed that it would be needed to serve the exploding suburbs in San Bernardino County and other inland areas.

Regional planning experts predict that population along the route will grow by 55% by 2010, while job growth will increase by 57%.

The extension will also add a quicker route to weekend vacation spots such as Las Vegas, Wrightwood and Big Bear Lake.

But gas station manager George MacCullum does not think about a fast getaway to Las Vegas when he stares at the canyon-like trench that has been built a few yards from his Unocal 76 station in Rancho Cucamonga. He complains about the dust and noise that fill the air.

"You can't keep anything clean," he said, adding that his business has dropped 40% because traffic has been diverted.

But MacCullum may change his tune when he begins to serve the 165,000 motorists who are expected to use the new route.

Much of it will run along a 30-foot-deep trench to reduce traffic noise for neighbors. But to dig the massive trench, workers must haul away about 14 million cubic yards of dirt for the entire project. They use a convoy of big rigs that rumble along the corridor almost nonstop from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. That is enough dirt to fill 17 Rose Bowls.

Dust complaints have been compounded by gusting Santa Ana winds, which occasionally turn the trench into a massive wind tunnel.

Contractors have been cited three times by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for allowing the dust to drift onto neighboring properties. AQMD officials say they are pressing the contractors to create a dust control plan.

Some freeway crews have sprayed the dirt with a special petroleum emulsion, but neighbors say that hasn't worked either.

Sandy Watson, a stay-at-home mother who lives a few yards from the project in Rancho Cucamonga, said dust routinely forms a dirty film on the family pool, hot tub and cars.

"But it's expected," Watson said with a shrug as she looked over the construction site from her front porch. "There is nothing you can do about it."

San Bernardino Associated Governments, one agency funding the construction, paid to clean the pools of several residents along the route.

More Pesky Problems

Waves of rodents have also plagued the work. When a bridge was built over the freeway at Archibald Street in Rancho Cucamonga last year, an army of ground squirrels retreated to the athletic field at nearby Vineyard Junior High School. County pest control crews were called to eradicate them.

The regional government agency has been forced to launch similar efforts at dozens of homes and businesses.

"When you dig up a lot of four-legged creatures' homes, they go burrowing somewhere else," said Cheryl Donahue, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino Associated Governments.

Other neighbors along the route have complained about nerve-racking noise and vibrations generated by the dinosaur-sized bulldozers and excavators.

Mary Dineen, whose family lives two blocks from the route, said she has reported the contractors to police several times for starting work before 6 a.m.

"It's mostly the sound of the trucks backing up: beep, beep, beep," she said, mimicking the sound. "It gets old."

Officials at Caltrans and San Bernardino Associated Governments said they have tried to make amends for such problems. The two agencies have distributed coupons to the public, offering discounts at the shops that have lost business because of the construction.

But transportation officials say the whole region should benefit from better traffic movement. And future generations probably will not have to endure such construction hardships.

"This is pretty much is the last major freeway," said Donahue. "We are kind of tapped out on space."

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