Construction crews began heavy construction last month on the final, 4-mile eastern leg of state Route 52.
State and local officials attended a ceremony in late June marking the long-awaited start of construction on an interchange connecting state Routes 52 and 67 near the Santee-El Cajon border.
The interchange is part of the SR-52 extension project that will be finished and open to traffic by the end of 2010, said Caltrans spokesman Hayden Manning.
"It will create a major link in the regional transportation network, known as the inner-loop, which consists of state Routes 52 to 125 to 54 back to Interstate 5," he said.
The extension project will include new roadway, bridges and interchanges at Fanita Drive, Cuyamaca Street and Magnolia Avenue.
It has been designed in close coordination with Santee's Forester Creek project, which is nearing completion and will address the area's frequent flooding. Forester Creek flows immediately adjacent to and across the freeway alignment.
The $600 million segment will cut through some of Santee's oldest neighborhoods, closing a gap in the region's freeway system and providing county drivers a longer east-west alternate route to Interstate 8.
Completing the last piece of SR-52 will also pull thousands of cars from Mast Boulevard and Mission Gorge Road, two of the city's busiest streets, said Mayor Randy Voepel, essentially "turning back the clock 10 or 15 years on traffic."
"There's not a day that goes by that Santee residents aren't impacted because 52 isn't finished," he said.
This last stretch of SR-52 will end the final chapter on an oft-delayed project that has been on the books since at least the 1950s, Manning said.
Caltrans records show the freeway was scheduled to connect to SR-67 on Santee's eastern end in 1995. But by the time the freeway reached Mission Gorge Road on the city's west end in 1993, Caltrans pushed back its completion until at least 2008. That date is now pegged at 2010.
Funding has been the biggest reason for the delay, transportation officials said.
Ups and downs in the economy, rising costs and complex issues related to building a freeway through developed neighborhoods stretched the project's timeline and resources.
First, San Diego County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transportation in 1987, which paid for dozens of projects, including the extension of SR-52 to SR-125. But the remaining $44 million wasn't enough to finish SR-52.
The project was then placed on a list of projects when county voters re-approved the half-cent sales tax for transportation in 2004.
"Officials eventually secured enough money from the county sales tax revenues earmarked for transportation, as well as state and federal funding, to make the budget work," said Caltrans' Manning.
A key turning point, he said, came in 2006 when California voters approved $19.9 billion in transportation bonds. Caltrans then began preparing for construction last year after the state's transportation commission authorized the final chunk of $316 million in state funds.
A total of $178 million in county sales tax funds and $106 million in federal funds will be used to pay for the project, he said.
In the more than 40 years it will have taken to complete SR-52, only the Santee sections have needed to displace residents and businesses. In all, Caltrans expects to spend about $226 million to help move the displaced and purchase more than 360 properties -- mostly houses and mobile homes.
An average of 42,000 daily vehicle trips is expected for the new segment in the first 18 months of its opening, Manning said. The figure is expected to increase to 112,000 daily vehicle trips by 2025.
In the meantime, he said there will be road and lane closures, as well as construction noise.
Project officials already have announced a major detour on Mission Gorge Road near the onramps to the freeway. The detour, which began in late June, will affect motorist driving in both directions along that road for about three months.
Caltrans also has constructed a temporary bike land adjacent to the eastbound lanes of Mission Gorge Road from Mesa Road under SR-52/SR-125 connector ramps.
Esterbrooks is a San Diego-based freelance writer.