COSTA MESA — As one of this city's founding fathers and a councilman for 16 years, Robert M. Wilson is intimately familiar with "the ditch."
Wilson watched with pleasure in the mid-1970s as lumbering bulldozers began slicing the deep chasm in the earth that would be necessary to allow the Costa Mesa Freeway to reach the sea.
He grimaced when state money dried up and the earth movers fled, leaving the ditch to the weeds and the field mice. Wilson was there as frustrated residents took to derisively calling it "Costa Mesa's Panama Canal," or joking that it should be filled with water and stocked with fish.
But now Wilson, who retired from the council in 1976, is smiling. Work has begun anew on the long-awaited extension of California 55 south into the heart of Costa Mesa. "I think it's great," Wilson said. "We need it badly. It's just 20 years late."
Not everyone, however, is happy.
All the construction work has ushered in monumental traffic jams along the existing roads perched on the freeway's embankments. The long lines of grumbling motorists promise to only get longer later this year as the roads, Newport Boulevard north and south, are temporarily reduced to one lane in each direction to make room for the project.
Many of the merchants at the freeway's edges are also irked by the work. The construction has scared off customers, they contend, and the completed freeway may act only to further divert business away from their doors.
Even when completed, the freeway extension falls more than a mile short of the original goal envisioned by planners more than three decades ago--to link the San Diego Freeway with Coast Highway.
Under the current construction project, the freeway will terminate at 19th Street, dumping traffic back onto Newport Boulevard in the heart of Costa Mesa's business district. These days, the money and political willpower to continue the freeway south to the coast are in short supply, authorities say.
"I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime," Wilson said.
What he will see is a $38-million, two-mile stretch of pavement topped by seven bridges and featuring four lanes in each direction. Construction began nearly a year ago, and already three of the bridges on the northern end of the project are completed and two others are under construction.
Massive storm drains, some of them eight feet in diameter, have been laid along several stretches, and a mountain of dirt is being removed on the southern end of the project.
At the northern end, a mountain of recycled concrete and asphalt sits baking in the sun. There is already a base along the road bed onto which the concrete roadbed will be poured in the months to come.
Work on the bridges has conspired to tie up traffic on numerous occasions in recent months. One day last week, a fleet of concrete trucks was lined up, blocking a lane of traffic at the Del Mar Avenue crossing. Traffic was backed up for a half mile up the street, as motorists tried to shoot across the intersection when the signal light flickered green.
Jim Chappelle, an engineer shepherding the project for the state Department of Transportation, didn't like what he was seeing, but said there was no way around it. Snarled traffic and headaches for motorists come with the territory.
"You definitely have a gridlock situation here," Chappelle said, gazing toward the line of cars. "People in Southern California don't have a lot of time to waste sitting in traffic at a construction project. But they should know that none of this is being done for the contractor's convenience. It has to be done this way."
With completion of the northern half of the project early next year, the traffic situation around the Orange County Fairgrounds and along Newport Boulevard south to Fairview Road should improve dramatically, Chappelle said. It's not the same story, however, further to the south.
Along the southern stretch, the company building the project, E.L. Yeager Construction Co., will, in September or October, begin shaving back the sides of the ditch in order to erect a lengthy, 30-foot-tall concrete retaining wall.
The effort, which will take at least six months to complete, will entail taking away two of the three existing lanes on southbound Newport Boulevard. After the wall is built, the section behind will be back-filled with dirt and then the two lanes of roadbed robbed from Newport Boulevard will be repoured. The same thing will be done to northbound Newport Boulevard, probably beginning in the fall of 1991.
Authorities say the result of such work will be monumental traffic jams along Newport Boulevard, the key route leading to and from the beaches, restaurants and night spots of Newport Beach.
"It's going to have a major impact on traffic," Chappelle said. "There's not a lot of alternative routes, but most people will get used to it and find their way around the tie-ups. The worst will be the weekends. It's going to be a mess. No doubt about that."