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On September 25, 1967 (55 years ago yesterday), a groundbreaking ceremony was held at El Cajon Boulevard and Boundary Street in San Diego for Interstate 805 (I-805). Planning for the highway dated to 1956, the same year the Interstate Highway System (IHS) was first funded and construction began.
At that time, San Diego County had around 600,000 residents. By 1970, the county’s population had grown to nearly 1.4 million. Today, its population is approximately 3.3 million.
Interstate 805 was originally known as the Inland Freeway, and was built to provide an alternate route to Interstate 5 through San Diego. It runs roughly through the center of the Greater San Diego region. I-805 was constructed in phases and the original construction was completed in 1975. Since then, the route has become a heavily used north-south highway and has been widened several times.
The highway runs for approximately 29 miles between San Diego’s San Ysidro district (which is just north of the U.S.-Mexico border) and near the beach city of Del Mar. I-805 includes the towering Jack Schrade Bridge over Mission Valley, which carries the highway over Interstate 8 and connects to that highway.
After I-805’s planning in 1956, its original route was approved as an interstate highway in July 1958. It was added to the state highway system and the Freeway and Expressway System in 1959 as Route 241. The highway was expected to reduce traffic on what was then US 101 between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Route 241 was renumbered to Route 805 when California renumbered its highways in 1964. Interstate 5 was designated as the route from Los Angeles to San Diego. Further planning for I-805 took place in 1965, and the goal was to have the route built by 1972, which was the deadline for federal highway funding. The highway was to be the first in the area; there was no prior road along its route that it would replace. Its purpose was to be a bypass around San Diego for those traveling to Mexico, as well as to improve access for local residents.
Bidding for construction began in May 1967, after it had been delayed by construction on the I-5 and I-8 interstate highways, both of which had been given higher priority. (To read earlier FreightWaves Classics articles about I-5, follow this link and this link; to read about I-8, follow this link.) I-805 was to constructed in phases, and the first section was built from Wabash Boulevard to around Madison Avenue (a distance of 3.5 miles), and the next section to be constructed would include the I-8/I-805 interchange.
The low bid for the first section was $11.7 million ($71 million today). In August 1968, the section of I-805 from just south of I-8 to north of Friars Road, including the interchange with I-8, was put up for bidding; budgeted at $27.5 million (equivalent to $160 million today), it was the most expensive job that the California Division of Highways had ever put up for bid.
Construction continued in phases. In September 1969 planners were concerned that an order from President Richard Nixon to reduce federal construction projects by 75% might impact funding for the highway. However, Governor Ronald Reagan ended an associated freeze in construction at the state level a few weeks later.
On July 6, 1970, the first section of the highway (between Home Avenue and near I-8) was dedicated, and opened from El Cajon Boulevard to Wabash Boulevard soon thereafter. The Chula Vista portion of the freeway from Main Street to L Street was completed in February 1971; however, the estimated date for completing I-805 in its entirety had slipped to 1975 from 1972.
By 1974, I-805 was open north of Home Avenue, and from Otay Valley Road to Telegraph Canyon Road in Chula Vista; five remaining segments were under construction, and the last segment was funded. I-805 between SR 15 and SR 94 was opened to traffic in late January.
The dedication of I-805 was held on July 23, 1975, even though the highway was not entirely finished (state and local officials wanted to hold the ceremony during the summer). I-805 from Plaza Boulevard to Telegraph Canyon Road opened to traffic on July 28; the highway was complete except for the portion between Plaza Boulevard and SR 94.
On September 3, 1975, it was announced that the full length of the highway would open the next day. The total cost to build the original version of I-805 was $145 million (over $550 million today).
Originally named the Inland Freeway, I-805 was officially renamed the Jacob Dekema Freeway in August 1981, and ceremonies to mark the name change took place in February 1982. Dekema was a long-time highway engineer and head of the regional division of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). Dekema was instrumental in developing San Diego’s present-day network of highways. A plaque honoring Dekema was installed at I-805’s Governor Drive interchange.
As noted above, the population of San Diego County has increased more than five-fold since I-805 was originally planned. To handle the increase in traffic, construction of a “dual freeway” at the northern end of I-805 had been recommended as early as 1989. A dual freeway refers to the two-lane carriageways needed for each direction of the highway, resulting in four lanes total. The plans required drivers to use new local lanes to access eastbound SR 56 from I-5 or I-805. The project allowed trucks to use the new lanes to assist traffic to merge. Although it faced opposition from local residents and environmentalists, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) funded the expansion construction in mid-2000.
Construction began in early 2002; the northbound lanes opened in February 2006 and the southbound lanes were finished in early 2007.
In 2009 construction started on two auxiliary lanes on I-805 southbound from SR 54 to Bonita Road, in order to improve traffic flow at the SR 54 interchange. Caltrans proposed adding high-occupancy toll express lanes between SR 15 and East Palomar Street in Chula Vista in 2010, and funds were awarded for the work in June 2011, which would be split into two phases at the interchange with SR 54. Two HOV lanes between SR 52 and Mira Mesa Boulevard also were built.
The northern project was completed in 2015, and the southern express lanes opened in March 2014 at a cost of $1.4 billion.
With as many as 10 lanes along its length, Interstate 805 has evolved into a busy commuter route from the international border to where it rejoins Interstate 5 near Carmel Valley.
As more businesses located along I-805 (especially its northern end) and more residences were built toward its southern end, the highway became a heavily used commuter route. Along with Interstate 5 and California 125, I-805 is one of three north-south freeways that reach Mexico.
So, like many interstates around the nation, several construction projects have taken place since the highway was “finished,” including the construction of local and express lanes at the northern interchange with I-5. High-occupancy toll lanes are under construction on both the northern and southern portions of the route.
Interstate 805 is part of the California Freeway and Expressway System as well as the National Highway System, a network of highways that are considered essential to the country’s economy, defense and mobility by the Federal Highway Administration.
Awards and citations
Since its original construction, I-805 has been cited frequently for its complex engineering and architecture.
For example, the Mission Valley Viaduct is “a towering reinforced concrete viaduct spanning Mission Valley and the San Diego River.” The viaduct is the top stack of the Jack Schrade Interchange over I-8, which is San Diego County’s only symmetrical stack interchange.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recognized the Mission Valley Viaduct as the “Outstanding Civil Engineering Project for 1973 in the San Diego Area.” It was designed to match the nearby Mission San Diego de Alcalá, whose columns look similar to cathedral windows, and arch-like shapes were etched into the textured concrete. The viaduct was designed to span 3,900 feet, and use squared-off support columns instead of traditional cylindrical supports. Octagonal columns were used on the ramps and the ends of the bridge. Over 600 tons of steel bars were used, and the bridge was built as high as 98 feet above I-8.
The Adams Avenue Bridge over I-805 was also recognized for its 439-foot span and two tapered supports on the bridge ends. The bridge was constructed from the middle outward rather than the conventional method of building from the ends inward. The span is 268 feet long and 100 feet high.
Ed Settle of Caltrans, who was the principal designer of I-805, won the Outstanding Civil Engineering Award from the ASCE. He also designed several other regional freeways, including SR 163 through Balboa Park and I-5 through San Diego.
Planned when San Diego County’s population was much smaller and there were fewer cars and trucks using the highways, I-805 relieves some of the congestion on Interstate 5 while serving the city of San Diego and several other cities and communities in San Diego County.