RIALTO, Calif. – The last stretch of brand-new freeway California is likely to see for many years opened Tuesday with motorists vying for position and the inevitable traffic jam.
Commuters clogged onramps to be among the first to burn rubber on State Route 210, a 7 1/4-mile ribbon completing a freeway that over decades pushed 80 miles east from Los Angeles through foothill towns along the San Gabriel Mountains. It now ties into cities and interstates in the growing region known as the Inland Empire.
As opening time approached, Jim Gary eased his aqua green 1997 Mustang into position while reporters swarmed and news helicopters thrummed overhead. He jockeyed for position with two women in a gray SUV who weren't shy about honking — and wound up second in line.
Suddenly, the cones were gone and Gary floored it. Music blaring, top down, he gunned past the SUV — which had stopped for a photo opportunity — and sped onto the freeway at 70 mph.
As his car glided under the first overpass, Gary honked the horn, gave a passenger a high-five and promptly started calling friends and relatives on his cell phone.
"Dude, watch the news tonight! Turn on the TV now! I'm the first on the freeway," he shouted, as a huge motorcycle passed him on the left.
Gary, a truck driver for a freight company, said he arrived at the ramp early and waited an hour to get in line.
"It paid off," he said, as he relived his moment of motoring glory. "It was a battle to see who was first. She was aggressive, but as soon as I saw the opening, I said, 'You go ahead and wave at the cameras. I'm going around you!"'
His back seat passenger, 20-year-old Tiana Colbert, shared his excitement.
"It was worth waking up for. Usually, I don't wake up for much," she said.
Officials say the freeway, first conceived in 1948, will likely be one of the last brand-new freeways to open for decades in California because of funding shortfalls and a lack of places to lay new pavement.
"We can go onto freeways and we can widen and modify and add lanes, but those freeways already exist," said Shelli Lombardo, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation. "This is a brand-new freeway and you're not going to see another one of those for a substantial number of years in California."
Some people showed up two hours ahead of the opening to check out the virgin pavement.
A radio station promoted the opening all morning and played a skit featuring a grumpy and jealous Interstate 10, which lies to the south and runs parallel to the 210. It is expected to lose some traffic to the new route.
"It's outstanding," said Judy Roberts, 64, who showed up to watch the freeway open. "Cars are a way of life in California — you live in your car and this will make a lot of difference to a lot of people."
Ken Humphrey, 44, was first to arrive at the overpass that the first cars on the freeway would later drive under. He commutes more than an hour each way from Rialto to his job in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles, and he said the new freeway would shave at least 15 minutes off his daily drive — each way.
"Now I'm just three blocks from this onramp. This is excellent. We've been waiting for this for a long time," he said.
When a previous 20-mile stretch of the 210 opened five years ago, so many drivers lined up on surface streets and onramps that the police had trouble with crowd control. The new segment, between the cities of Rialto and San Bernardino, cost $233 million to complete, bringing the freeway's total cost to about $1.2 billion over the years.
The vision for the freeway began nearly six decades ago, when officials began buying up land for a right-of-way. It moved in fits and starts, and was almost waylaid entirely over concerns it would contribute to too much sprawl, said Lombardo.
The freeway begins at Interstate 5 in northernmost Los Angeles. For most of its length it is designated Interstate 210 and is known as the Foothill Freeway, the 210 Freeway or just "the 210." The new segment is designated a "state route."
A freeway proposed for the high desert on the north side of the mountains would run between Victor Valley and Antelope Valley, but it is still in very early planning stages. It will be decades before it is completed, if the project even gets that far, said Cheryl Donahue, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino Associated Governments, which was a partner on the 210 Freeway project.
"If funds can be cobbled together, it may come in the future," she said. "Unfortunately, these big highway projects take many, many years to plan."