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Monday, Oct. 22, 2007 | The freeways are our civilization’s great structures. The Egyptians produced the pyramids (titanic tombs for their tyrannical rulers). The Romans built the Colosseum (where peons and patricians savored bloody contests of man and beast).

The Californians build vast, complex webs of interstates — which are not roads in the way a Roman would recognize. Here, they are rivers of asphalt and concrete hundreds of feet and a dozen lanes wide. They plow through swaths of cities and over mountain ranges. They span valleys and deserts and, if we include other states, whole continents.

Not all places are like this.

Were we not, as Southern Californians, so desensitized to nearly everything, we would view with more awe these incredible structures on which we travel. The sight of them is astounding. One of my favorites is the bridge on I-805 over Mission Valley, which towers hundreds of feet above buildings, cars, homes … and another freeway. One seems to fly from southbound I-805 to eastbound I-8 — a swooping, banked arc between the huge supporting pillars that one can comfortably — miraculously — take at 60 mph.

Unlike many of the grand structures of antiquity, the freeways of our society are not built for the express pleasure of a privileged elite. In fact they are not built expressly for the pleasure of anybody. We need them. To have a continent-spanning asphalt river shut off even at one point is a traumatic event, as we were reminded with the explosions on I-5 some weeks ago.

In school, we saw horrifying drawings of what it would have looked like: thousands of slaves dragging humongous blocks of stone to the pyramids’ construction sites, baking under the Egyptian sun.

The corresponding picture of our age would look something like I-5 northbound between Del Mar Heights Rd. and Via De La Valle on a Friday at 4 p.m. Thousands of hurried humans all locked inside their metal boxes, driving, voluntarily, into the gridlock, believing it will get us somewhere. Despite computers and satellite navigation and cruise-control, our techno-chariots can most days muster only a crawl in such cramped quarters.

Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mayor Jerry Sanders and other dignitaries celebrated their pity for us, the gridlocked populi. From the parking lot of a Vons that overlooks one of the most torturous stretches of Interstate 5, the group announced improvements that would try to help the freeway better handle the 250,000 cars that use it every day.

With $168 million of our money, the carpool lane on I-5 will be extended past Via De La Valle to Manchester Ave. in Encinitas. The same lane on a stretch of I-805 will be lengthened as well. A messy interchange at Lomas Santa Fe is due to be reconfigured.

Simultaneously, other changes are reshaping the I-5 into an altogether different species of serpent. When completed, the I-5/805 merge will no longer be the landmark (“THERE ARE TONS OF PEOPLE AROUND HERE”) that it once was. There are tons of people everywhere, here.

As you read this, the massive freeway is swelling northward: crews have sliced off hillsides to add an “auxiliary” lane between Del Mar Heights Rd. and Lomas Santa Fe. Local drivers supposedly will use the aux lane when shuffling an exit or two up to school, or dinner, or shopping, and leave the harried commuters undisturbed in the middle of their hardened stream.

These improvements will ease traffic on the North Coast section of I-5 by 20 percent, according to Arnold. Considering they cost only money, that’s perhaps not a bad deal. A few miles to the south, many humans live happily in houses that may soon be swallowed by the Interstate. Their west-of-I-5 homes, along Portofino Circle near Carmel Valley Road, lie in the proposed path of a towering flyover that could one day connect I-5 southbound to SR-56 east, if the traffic studies and bureaucrats approve.

The connector would be another merge-style, two-lane ramp thrust skyward if it gets built — and there’s no telling it will. At least 10 homes, and more backyards, would get the ax. Local residents are mixed: It’d be a big, ugly thing, and sad for the homeowners … but right now all those cars “land in Carmel Valley, circle around and take off again,” a local planning board member told me. (Some of us are still confused about how the 56 was declared “finished” without a connector to I-5, but that’s another story …)

The project would also require adding yet another lane to southbound I-5, so that cars headed east can get good and moved-over before Del Mar Heights Road without cramping up. That’s the third additional lane discussed in this article. But of course, all this isn’t being done for the needs of today. The freeway and ramp are required to be tolerable even in 2030 — when the traffic will doubtless be much worse.

Worse? Intuitively that makes sense, but to visualize it takes some imagination. The morning traffic report for I-5 southbound is already as pointless as a weatherman in San Diego: “… and the southbound five is bumper-to-bumper from Pointsettia lane all the day down to Via De La Valle …” (I listen to it daily before joining the freeway fray for my 22-mile slog to work — not sure why.)

The thing about every great civilization’s great structures is that, while they proclaimed the strengths of the societies that built them, they also revealed their shortcomings. Today we can’t help but see the incredible pyramids as products of forced labor — however common that may have been at the time. We are shocked by the bloody deeds offered up for general consumption in Rome’s elegant Colosseum.

So I’m not optimistic about the possibility that a grinding commute will seem an unthinkable burden to future generations. That we might actually stop building more houses. Or that we will one day devise a more lasting, if less magnificent, solution to transport for the masses besides building freeways that simply consume more earth. Those advances, however sensible, are not on any horizon I can see — while Arnold’s freeway bond money is. But here’s hoping.

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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