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.
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.
“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.
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.