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Down the lane with Jacob Dekema

The man they named the 805 after gives a San Diego freeway tour

A civil servant with something to look back on — 11 freeways totaling 450 miles, about half of them in metropolitan San Diego.
  • A civil servant with something to look back on — 11 freeways totaling 450 miles, about half of them in metropolitan San Diego.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Turning left on San Ysidro Boulevard and pushing uphill on a northbound on-ramp of Interstate 805, near the U.S.- Mexican border, we enter the Jacob Dekema Freeway with Jacob Dekema in the passenger seat.

He fiddles with the registers on the dashboard of the Celebrity wagon, fending off the breeze of the air conditioner, and remarks in a cold-encumbered voice that the road sign announcing his name on the freeway stands some ways behind us, back closer to the border.

The sign had to be donated by the manufacturer, he adds. It seems that when the legislature agreed in 1975 to recognize his 42 years in highway construction, in' eluding 25 years in charge of the Caltrans district that includes everything south of Orange County and eastward to Arizona, it insisted that naming Interstate 805 in his honor should cost the state nothing.

Interstate 805 had already cost $145 million, or $5 million a mile, most of it paid by the federal government. Suddenly the legislature decided to save state taxpayers untold hundreds of dollars.

Jacob Dekema: “We built these freeways, and they’re not generating less trips, they’re generating more. More freedom."

Jacob Dekema: “We built these freeways, and they’re not generating less trips, they’re generating more. More freedom."

There he sits now, 73 years old, sharp eyed, lean from years of swimming and from pedaling on exercise bikes at the Cuyamaca Club, his hard black shoes polished as a former navy man’s should be, slacks duly creased, hair slicked and parted straight as a ruler. He is grinning at the Otay countryside and the shake-shingle rooftops streaming past his window in the sunshine.

He is one civil servant with something to look back on; 11 freeways totaling 450 miles, about half of them in metropolitan San Diego, were built under his administration between 1955 and 1980. Only one bridge collapsed, a pedestrian structure that was under construction near Lindbergh Field (no injuries).

The oil embargo and the environmental movement put a premature end to his original plan for the freeway system, but the one he built has been eagerly embraced by San Diego, a city drunk on driving, if one recent study is true. How comfortable it is, for instance, leaving La Jolla on Ardath Road, to come upon a choice of freeways: Highway 52 or Interstate 5. Less often now, but often enough compared to Los Angeles or Orange Counties, San Diego can offer the fantasy of driving a freeway of one’s own.

Jacob Dekema Freeway (I-805), southbound into Mission Valley. The valleys and canyons that give the area so much of its character break up the pattern of streets and make it hard to get around on anything but the freeways.

Jacob Dekema Freeway (I-805), southbound into Mission Valley. The valleys and canyons that give the area so much of its character break up the pattern of streets and make it hard to get around on anything but the freeways.

“That’s how they reward 42 years of faithful service,” he says, thinking back on the donated sign. He is still grinning, and his tone is one that anyone who’s grown up in the household of a civil servant would recognize: an amused contempt for his own bureaucracy.

Around District 11 headquarters in Old Town, Dekema was known by his saying, “Always build somebody up, never tear somebody down.” Understandably, he was well liked by his staff. Polite, respectful, noncombative — an office type — he also knew his way around a construction site. He’d started at the Division of Highways, as Caltrans was called, while an engineering student at USC, toiling one summer on a survey crew that laid out improvements on a dirt road to the Yosemite Valley. A crew consisted of a surveyor peering into the transit and an assistant off in the bush driving stakes. “I never touched that transit all summer,” Dekema said.

He graduated with honors in 1938, returned to the division in Sacramento, worked as a construction engineer on parts of Highway 99 near Fresno, served in the navy during the war, rejoined the division, and rose through the ranks in the outlying districts. (He has a street named after him in Blythe.) The San Diego job was a lateral transfer. His wife Shirley, whom he had met during his naval duty in Virginia, gave him pause when she wondered if they should raise their son and daughter in a sailors’ town. He told her he expected the city to grow up around the navy, and indeed he had the fortune of arriving just when the federal dollars for interstates began to flutter in.

“Back then you could buy the land before there was anything on it,” Dekema is saying as we skim at rooftop level through southern Chula Vista. “Nothing out here then but jackrabbits.” Five miles east, in present'd ay jackrabbit country, the division once sketched another freeway and tentatively called it the San Miguel. It would connect Brown Field to the south with the South Bay Freeway (Highway 54), near Paradise Hills, then bend westward and merge with the Inland Freeway (Interstate 805), in Southeast San Diego. Dekema says that by 1957, two years after he an rived, “we had a plan ... for twice as many miles as we ever got to build.”

The Eisenhower Interstate and Defense Highway Act promised to deliver federal funding at 90 cents on the dollar for expressways designed to accommodate troop trucks and weaponry. Thus Interstates 8 and 5 were built to defend and evacuate the city.

I-5 and Highway 163. On a typical freeway, the top layer of concrete is ten inches thick in the truck lanes and tapers to eight inches in lane number one at the center.

I-5 and Highway 163. On a typical freeway, the top layer of concrete is ten inches thick in the truck lanes and tapers to eight inches in lane number one at the center.

In effect, the federal program also promised to release local money for making an eight-lane freeway of almost every existing and planned state highway: 163 to Escondido, 94 to La Mesa, 54 from National City through La Presa to El Cajon, 52 from La Jolla to Santee, 56 from Del Mar to Poway, 76 from Oceanside to Escondido, 125 from El Cajon to Santee, and 252 across Southeast San Diego.

That civil leaders had the will to create this huge system was beyond question. To complement its harbor and compete with Los Angeles for immigrants and trade, San Diegans had compiled a record of devotion to road improvements that verged on the weird.

One story will do. In 1912, the city pledged $25,000 toward the construction of a 60-mile road from El Centro, in Imperial County, to Yuma, Arizona, linking San Diego with the transcontinental Memphis Highway. The road was to cover a stretch of sand hills that presented an obstacle no highway engineer had yet attempted. A novel idea was to build the road of wood. Planks were lashed together in parallel tracks about a yard wide and five feet apart. The plank road, as it was called, proved an immediate success by reducing the journey from two days to 12 hours, but soon the tracks were broken, buckled, and in many places buried by sand.

In the meantime, the state announced its intention of building a highway across Imperial County with its terminus in San Diego or Los Angeles. The plank road might have seemed a sorry contender, but not to Colonel Ed Fletcher, the prominent landowner, who challenged the proponents of the L.A. route to a race: first party to reach Phoenix by car would win bragging rights. Fletcher left San Diego at the appointed time, deflated his tires at the edge of the desert, left the plank road altogether, and ran over brush to improve his traction. He also hired a team of six horses to pull him across the dunes.

He won by three hours (according to his own account in a letter) and later raised $17,000 to restore the plank road to service. He had the final satisfaction of seeing the highway commission in Sacramento choose it for an official county route, which eventually became Interstate 80.

It may have helped, too, that the commission’s chief engineer at the time was Fletcher’s cousin, but by the 1970s, no publicity stunt or personal ties could have preserved San Diego’s ambitious plan. Nearly all of the interstate miles had been built by 1973, when the oil embargo hit. The diversion of federal dollars to rail transports, the outcries of environmentalists, and, finally, Gov. Jerry Brown’s doctrine of doing more with less ended the construction halfway.

The sign had to be donated by the manufacturer.

The sign had to be donated by the manufacturer.

Apart from improvements to Interstate 15, the last complete freeway built on the original plan was Interstate 805 — Dekema’s freeway.

About a quarter mile ahead now is the Plaza Bonita Shopping Center, on what used to be a golf course. Right here, where it crosses the Sweetwater Valley between Chula Vista and National City, was the site of a ceremony that opened the freeway 16 years ago. The turnout was small: Dekema, some local officials, the press, and townspeople. The band from Hilltop High School outnumbered everybody else. After paying scant attention to the speeches, people wandered about on the cambered surface with great curiosity, like Lilliputians on Gulliver’s chest.

The lanes had not been painted yet, and the concrete looked as though it had been roughed with a brush. On a typical freeway, the top layer of concrete is ten inches thick in the truck lanes and tapers to eight inches in lane number one at the center. Below is a grid of reinforcing bars and eight inches of lower-grade concrete that contains less binding material and more rock. The pavement is about half as thick as the runway at Lindbergh Field. The seams that allow the surface to expand and contract are spaced at varying intervals to prevent the regular thrum of traffic from creating harmonic waves. Paving usually accounts for about a fifth of the total construction cost. Slightly more expensive is the cost of cutting, moving, grading, and compacting dirt for the pavement to rest on.

In normal operation, one freeway lane carries 2000 riders an hour, compared to an average of 1700 on the San Diego Trolley. The figure assumes no passengers on the freeway — only drivers — and according to the most recent ridership study, the assumption is pretty close to reality. Between 1987 and 1980, when Dekema retired, his 28-mile freeway was unique in San Diego for having increased its average daily traffic by 40,000 cars over more than half of its length. Just the increase was enough to fill one lane, continuously, from one end to the other, throughout the day.

Freeway traffic overall in San Diego has increased by 50 percent since 1980. Part of the blame can be laid to geography. The valleys and canyons that give the area so much of its character also break up the pattern of streets and make it hard to get around on anything but the freeways. Part is due also to the increase in population, up about 20 percent to 2.2 million between 1980 and 1986, and to a 40 percent increase in the work force.

But nothing seems to explain conclusively why San Diegans are in the habit of driving more. The San Diego Association of Governments, in a survey of 2500 households in 1986, discovered that during the previous 20 years the populace had changed its travel behavior in ways that gave new meaning to San Diego’s old slogan, “A City in Motion.”

The evening rush hour no longer peaks at 5:00 p.m.; it lasts from 3:00 to 6:00.

San Diegans walk less and ride the bus less often; they drive more frequently, drive longer distances, for longer periods of time and are more likely to drive alone. Households have fewer people and more cars. Trips devoted to work have held steady since 1980, but the average driver’s share of shopping trips has increased 40 percent. In 1986, for the first time, the number of licensed drivers (1.4 million) was matched and then exceeded by the number of registered vehicles.

So now it appears that more of the original freeway plan will be built after all, along with six more trolley lines and improvements to city streets. With $750 million from a half-percent sales tax increase, approved in 1987, Caltrans will follow through on building and improving Routes 52, 54, 56, 76, 78, and 125. For $73 million, Caltrans will also add a freeway monitoring system like that in Los Angeles, studded with traffic counters, advisory signs, and television cameras to identify accidents.

Bill Tuomi, a senior transportation planner at SANDAG and former engineer at Caltrans, seems confident the improvements will relieve pressure on the congestive heart of the freeway system, Interstate 8 in Mission Valley, but is less sanguine about improvements to the north, where residential growth is strong and surface streets are few. Miramar Naval Air Station seems a particular problem. He draws a line through its center and says an arterial street there would certainly relieve congestion on Interstates 5 and 15 on either side, then admits to wishful thinking. The big question, he says, is whether San Diegans will change their travel habits once again, drive less, share rides, and use buses and trains more.

In 1955, Jake Dekema was hung in effigy for backing a shoreline route for Interstate 5. Many San Dieguito residents wanted an inland route that would bypass Encinitas and the other beach communities.

In 1955, Jake Dekema was hung in effigy for backing a shoreline route for Interstate 5. Many San Dieguito residents wanted an inland route that would bypass Encinitas and the other beach communities.

Jacob Dekema is looking very pleased to be traveling in light traffic on a sunny day. We are gullying through North Park, where the freeway is sunk in a deep trench that makes backyard fences look like a citadel overhead. His driver has been prodding him to accept that suburbs might possibly be seen as a freeway- driven abomination, anathema to urban culture, but he is not even rising to the suggestion. He takes it for granted that suburbs are great.

“We built these freeways, and they’re not generating less trips, they’re generating more. More freedom. People want to live out away from the city and drive in to work, or they want to live in one part [of the metropolis] and work in another, or go shopping or so forth. They don’t want to live all in one place like they do in New York.”

Dekema, whose father was a trading agent for a steamship company, traveled widely in his youth. He speaks Dutch and visits frequently in Europe — preferring trains to highways for intercity travel. If New York holds no attraction for him, it’s not because he hasn’t been around.

He once referred to himself, with evident pride, as a “great believer in the power of contrary thinking.” He does not blame freeways for creating suburban sprawl. In one of his speeches as district director, Dekema quoted Frank Herring of the Port of New York Authority, who concluded that the decline of mass transit and the rise of the automobile were parallel phenomena more than cause and effect. “They result,” Herring wrote, “from a common cause, the changes in form and structure of the metropolis due to changes in power installation, production technologies, and communication methods, as well as transportation.”

“There’s nothing basically wrong with the freeway system,” declares Dekema as we begin our descent into Mission Valley. “It’d already be fixed if they’d have let us double it.’’

We are now on the bridge that carries the freeway over the valley. The view is rather 'nice. From the valley floor, the i bridge looks overbearing and ;grossly unnatural, but being on the bridge is great, like flying. To the right, we can see over ;the stadium toward the stony hills by Santee.

When we passed some minutes ago beneath the Roscoe E. Hazard Friendship Bridge, which connects University Heights and Kensington via Adams Avenue, Dekema started explaining how the Hazard Company landed so many freeway contracts. It maintained an asphalt-concrete pit and plenty of heavy equipment locally, both of which cut costs and made for a sharp pencil in bidding. But moreover, said Dekema, it frequently bid on jobs with Walter F. Maxwell, the bridge specialist.

Maxwell, who died about ten years ago, was a hard taskmaster who had built about 250 bridges by the time he had reached his mid-50s and suffered his first heart attack. He was uninvolved in Sunday schools, politics, and civic clubs. Obsessed with the details of his work, he flew about in his Cessna between job sites to maintain what he called “a thorough job of reporting.” At one time or another, he filled in for everybody on the job site: superintendent, timekeeper, mechanic, and construction engineer. He frequently entered into joint ventures with Hazard, letting Hazard take paving and grading while he would build the bridges himself, because he didn’t want to lose freeway jobs to bigger companies and was unwilling to let his own W.F. Maxwell Company grow to the point where he felt removed from day-to-day operations.

His pleasure was inventing small ways to save time and materials. To take only one instance, as the cost increased for lumber used in falsework (the scaffolding around the forms that receive and shape poured concrete), he went to great lengths to save it for reuse. On the Mission Valley bridge, he left holes on top to string cables through for lowering the lumber gently down to the ground. The practice now is standard on high bridgework.

Approaching the Balboa Avenue exit now, near Montgomery Field, we pass the headquarters of a small company, like Maxwell’s, that prides itself on innovation: Radar Control Systems. A collection of aerospace engineers, the company has adapted radar guidance technology to the brakes and cruise-control systems of ordinary cars. This month or next, in conjunction with Caltrans and the University of California, it will begin testing its equipment on a trio of Ford sedans cruising up and down the new bus expressway on Interstate 15, at midday when the buses are idle.

“You take the concrete freeway and there’s only so much it can do,” John Davis, the founder of Radar Control, said over the phone one day last week. “At peak hours it just doesn’t work. Off-peak, it’s fine, but your limitation is the anarchy of everyone controlling their own cars.”

The experimental Fords will each carry a radar dish, seven inches in diameter, about the size of a headlight, on the front bumper. One car following another can adjust its speed so quickly that the two would appear physically linked, like boxcars on a train.

“We can decrease your speed by ten miles an hour in one-tenth of a second,” Davis stated. “Before you even realize it, your car knows what the other car is doing.” He said that at close distances, the radar link between cars would even allow for direct communication. “At a certain number of feet,” he said, “you’re actually reading the other car’s speedometer.”

The system’s capacities will be severely tested because the experiment involves three cars instead of two. Differences between the cars’ motors, brakes, tires, and other variables are compounded as the number of cars increases. “Obviously you can’t mix Volkswagens and high-performance vehicles,” David conceded. “Right now we’re talking about cars of basically the same type ... but eventually, you’re also talking about greatly increased capacity.”

At maximum capacity of 2000 cars an hour in each lane, each car follows another at an interval of about two seconds, at 40 miles per hour. Theoretically, radar controls would allow for intervals approaching one-quarter second, although practically speaking, the interval on a freeway lane dedicated to radar-controlled vehicles would probably be about one second, said Howard Ross, a transportation consultant in Berkeley. Thus radar controls may double the capacity of ordinary freeway lanes. Talking on the phone a few weeks ago, he conceded that the goal will be difficult to achieve. “The changes that would have to take place are enormous. I want to be the last one to talk about this as though it were facile.

“But,” he went on, “I don’t think it’s going to take 50 years. I really don’t. You’re going to see some large-scale testing within the next ten years, and some systems, with special lanes and other restrictions, coming along perhaps as soon as the 1990s.”

Asked to describe what a freeway of the future would look like, he added: “Not much different from what you see today. You’ll have beacons of some kind along the sides, but essentially you’re working with the same configuration but getting more out of it.” Merging now with Interstate 5, at the end of the Dekema Freeway in Sorrento Valley, we slow to first gear, then pause for a few seconds, stalled in thick traffic.

Our speed picks up again through heavier traffic. At Via de la Valle in Del Mar, we exit and turn back toward Dekema’s home in Bird Rock, taking Highway 101 past the Del Mar Fairgrounds, with its racetrack and ever-present ducks.

Up in these parts, in 1955, Dekema was hung in effigy for backing a shoreline route for Interstate 5. Many San Dieguito residents wanted an inland route that would bypass Encinitas and the other beach communities, but Dekema’s predecessor, E.E. Wallace, had favored a route that overlay Highway 101. Indeed, in 1949 he built a stretch of the proposed expressway from Carlsbad to the northern edge of Leucadia. “Jake Dekema was apparently just projecting Wallace’s old plan,” says one history of Solana Beach.

In the aftermath of tense community meetings at San Dieguito High School, the highway commission ordered a study of an inland route and Dekema finally realigned the freeway where it is today. The historian judged him “a young, alert engineer who had the courtesy to listen to the local people.” With an engineer’s pride in dispassion, Dekema remembers, “The fact is, I hadn’t made up my mind.”

We pass through Del Mar and head up the Torrey Pines grade, while Dekema, in high spirits now and casting a sly look at the driver, holds forth about the value of a good road even if building it requires knocking down the odd pine. “Were not that bad off for losing a few trees,” he says.

A moment later, while he is describing a short-lived proposal in another district, in the early 1960s, to clear a path for Interstate 40 by detonating 22 nuclear devices and vaporizing a mountain, suddenly he can’t remember the precise word for a crater left after the collapse or explosion of a volcano. It upsets him that the word won’t come to mind. He fidgets and reaches forward to touch the dashboard, bearing down.

(The proposal, in any case, was dropped after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 forbade further nuclear explosions above ground.) “Caldera,” he says at last, nodding. “The explosions would have left a caldera.”

We pass UCSD and turn down La Jolla Shores Drive, now in the home stretch. Dekema is saying that after years of congestion-free travel, San Diegans have forgotten how difficult it used to be to get around. He says that during World War II, when the Convair plant next to Lindbergh Field let out on a Friday, the intersection at Washington Street and Highway 101 would be blocked with cars for an hour.

Asked if he built roads during the war, he says, “Oh no. They put me in naval ordnance. Artillery. Toward the end I was working with rockets, but I didn’t stay with it.” He pauses a beat. “I didn’t see any future in it,” he says with a giggling, toothy laugh. “We took ordnance that you’d fire from under the wing of an aircraft and try to make rockets out of them. They’d go every which way. I thought, ‘There’s no future in this — never be any future in rockets at all.’”

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