One sunny afternoon in May, politicians from throughout the South Bay lined up on a dusty platform at the nearly completed interchange between the Artesia and Harbor freeways to dedicate the $48.6-million project.
Beaming officials from the California Department of Transportation announced that the Artesia-Harbor project, more than a decade in the making, as well as work on the nearby interchange between the San Diego and Harbor freeways, would be finished within two weeks.
"We don't have many of these," said Caltrans Director Heinz Heckeroth at the time, referring to the decidedly upbeat dedication ceremony. "We revel in the opportunity to do this."
Two months later, it is hard to see much improvement at either interchange. Lanes are still closed, traffic is still being detoured, and five of the six ramps that were said to be near completion in May have still not been finished. Only the ramp connecting eastbound Artesia Boulevard to the Artesia Freeway has opened, Caltrans officials said.
"Every time I drive by there I wonder what it all means," said Paul Jernstrom, a Rolling Hills physician who passes through the Harbor-San Diego interchange every day on his way to work in downtown Los Angeles. Jernstrom is one of several South Bay residents who complained to The Times about the project.
"It will be great when they open everything," he said. "But I will believe it when I see it."
Caltrans officials, while acknowledging that the dedication ballyhoo two months ago may have been premature, said this past week that the project is still viewed as a major success. Senior resident engineer Paul Askelson said that the five remaining ramps should be open by Friday--15 months ahead of the original schedule set three years ago.
"Our smile isn't quite as big as it may have been had it all opened last month," Askelson said. "But we are glad that it is this early. The fact is that when dealing with construction, whether painting a house or building a freeway, things get delayed."
Several problems contributed to the delays, Askelson said, including some unanticipated difficulties with the electrical wiring for street lights that line several of the ramps. The biggest problem, however, has been getting a huge pavement grinder used to smooth road surfaces, he said.
Askelson said the grinder, owned by the contractor, Kasler Corp., was needed first for a project in Utah. "They had to wait until that was finished up there before they could get it down here," he said. "The contractor is so far ahead of schedule (on the ramp project), he is not going to go out and hire somebody else to go do the work when he has the equipment himself. It is a matter of economics."
The grinding work got under way a week ago, and the final touches to the electrical wiring should be finished this week, Askelson said. Workers also will begin striping the lanes this week, and all five remaining ramps should be open to traffic this week, he said.
Two of the ramps--the northbound San Diego to the southbound Harbor and the northbound Harbor to the westbound Artesia--are expected to open between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday, he said. The remaining three ramps--the eastbound Artesia to both the northbound and southbound Harbor, and the southbound Harbor exit to 190th Street--should open at the same time on Friday, he said.
Caltrans estimates that 350,000 vehicles pass through the area where the Harbor and Artesia freeways intersect during a typical weekday, and about 545,000 pass through the intersection of the San Diego and Harbor freeways. Caltrans has dubbed the Artesia-Harbor interchange the "Gateway to the South Bay" because of the role it is expected to play in moving traffic between the area and neighboring communities.
Askelson said he is fairly confident that there will be no further delays and that the interchanges will be open this week. Of Caltrans' previous prediction that the ramps would be open by June 7, he said: "I guess you can just say that we blew that one."