Given our status-conscious, auto-fixated image, you'd think Southern Californians would be lined up bumper to bumper to get their names on a freeway segment, bridge or overpass. But until recent years, traffic in memorial roadways has been, well, light. With 4,699 highway miles ripe for the picking south of the Santa Barbara County line, a mere 48 individuals have garnered this, er, moving tribute since 1895.
Here, as on so many of life's byways, politicians seem to be hogging the road. In Greater L.A. alone, for example, former U.S. Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-San Pedro), former Assemblyman Willard Murray (D-Paramount) and the late Assemblyman Frank Lanterman (R-La Canada) have memorials in their districts. The Edmond J. Russ Interchange linking the Long Beach and Gardena freeways honors a former Gardena mayor. The Ronald Reagan Freeway (the former Simi Valley-San Fernando Valley Freeway) reminds drivers of California's presidential ties. (On the debit side, Watergate memories transformed the Richard M. Nixon Freeway into the Marina Freeway in 1976.)
To be fair, a good number of memorials honor a more fundamental brand of valor. In 1994, L.A.'s 105-104 interchange was named for Sadao S. Munemori, a Japanese American soldier who died to save two World War II comrades. Four years later, the East L.A. Interchange, at the Golden State, Pomona, Hollywood and San Bernardino freeways, became the Eugene A. Obregon Memorial Interchange for a young Latino Marine killed in the Korean War. And the Charles A. Lazzaretto Memorial Freeway, on the Ventura Freeway between the Golden State and Glendale freeways, was christened in 1999 for a Glendale police officer killed in the line of duty.
If 48 memorials in more than a century seems restrained for vanity-happy Southern California, you can't blame it on red tape. Getting a designation is simpler than, say, driving the 405 Freeway on a Friday. Once it gains a sponsor in the state Legislature, the resolution bypasses committees and goes to votes by the Assembly and Senate. If passed, it takes effect without the governor's signature. Memorial supporters, not taxpayers, buy the signs that Caltrans workers install on an affected roadway, such as the Robert E. McCloure Tunnel. Named in 1969 for the publisher of the now-defunct Santa Monica Evening Outlook, the famous throughway funnels traffic between I-10--aka the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway--and the Pacific Coast Highway.
On the other hand, interest in highway memorials may be . . . accelerating. Last year, the region got what is still its only freeway segment named for a woman. The Dr. June McCarroll Memorial Freeway on the I-10 near Indio honors an early 20th century Riverside County physician who pushed for the painting of center lines to promote safer highways.
And last month, the late Sonny Bono became Southern California's lone double honoree--an interchange in Moreno Valley had been named for the pop singer and politician last year--when his name went onto an I-10 segment near Palm Springs.
Sooner or later, our highway memorials will cross that intangible center divider and veer into the diamond lane of all-out homage hyperbole. Beloved pets? Wilt Chamberlain? Liberace? Lobby your congressman today.