A job completed 18 years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget hardly seems like something to celebrate. Unless that job is the interstate freeway system.

This Tuesday state and federal potentates will gather to open the final section of interstate in Utah - a 22-mile stretch of I-15 between Tremonton and Plymouth.Despite the freeway system's flaws, delay and high cost, bureaucrats look forward to backslapping and praise over completing the unprecedented public works project.

Asked what his reaction will be at the dedication, Utah's transportation chief Eugene Findlay raised clenched fists and shouted, "We've done it."

The 938 miles of multilane, limited-access highway cutting across Utah:

- Linked most of the state's rural areas to major population centers in and out of Utah. Forty percent of the miles driven in rural Utah is on interstate.

- Became the transportation backbone for commuters and industry along the Wasatch Front. Thirty percent of the total miles driven in Utah's urban areas are on interstate.

- Enhanced Salt Lake City, where I-15 and I-80 intersect, as a critical crossroads for east-west commerce.

"It can't be quantified, but it has been monumental in redefining population patterns within Utah . . . and in vastly increasing the markets Utah can serve," said Frank Hochman, associate director of the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Indeed, the interstate has played a part in the life and death of many Utah communities.

The idea of an interstate highway system linking major population and industry centers of the country had been discussed as early as the 1920s, said Ellis Armstrong, former U.S. Commissioner of Public Roads. But planners didn't put it on paper until 1942, and it took until 1956 for federal legislation funding the project to pass.

To sell the idea to Congress, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to justify the system as a way to mobilize the nation's military defense in an emergency, hence the name National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

"With the defense concept in mind, we had a hard time designing overpasses with enough clearance for trucks carrying missiles," Armstrong said.

But the envisioned defense role didn't happen until this year, when the federal government for the first time activated its transportation command to move troops and equipment to the Persian Gulf.

Irony of the interstate didn't escape Utah either. Take the interchange to the non-existent town of Browse in Washington County, where officials dedicated the state's first 5-mile segment of completed freeway on July 8, 1959.

Federal regulations required that public land have access to the freeway. So, UDOT figured an interchange would be cheaper than a long frontage road on that lonely stretch of interstate. The familiar green exit signs for the fictitious community of Browse still stand at the roadside. But the off ramps lead nowhere.

By the interstate's original 1972 completion date, less than half of it was finished in Utah and its cost had gone up considerably. Transportation officials blame a lot of things for the delay and added expense: Lack of adequate funding, birth of environmentalism, legal battles with nearby residents, construction complications in metropolitan areas, changing transportation needs over 30 years . . . .

But in the end, Utah actually finished ahead of its constantly changing deadline. When Eugene Findlay became director of the Utah Department of Transportation in 1986, he scheduled completion sometime in 1993-94. "Then we got the opportunity to go for $78 million in federal discretionary funds. We went back to Washington with the governor, made a big pitch for it and we got it. And that literally pushed our freeway construction schedule ahead two years."

Some UDOT engineers and private contractors had spent their entire careers building the freeway. And when the end came into sight, they started to worry. "One contractor wanted the governor to send the money back," Findlay said.

But everyone meeting in Tremonton this week knows that Tuesday's celebration is short-lived.

"The nature of our work is that it never gets done," said Clint Topham, planning director for UDOT.

Despite the talk of "completing" the system, construction crews have really only finished the first phase. Now, engineers must look at redesigning and expanding sections of interstate that have since become outdated.

Topham explained that freeway constructed in the 1960s was designed for 20 years ago and can't handle today's demands.

UDOT plans to redesign, add lanes and increase capacity along interstates from Utah County to Weber County. The process has already begun with the rebuilding of I-80 between the I-15 junction and Redwood Road.

But completing the freeway has taught transportation officials that plans are one thing and paying to make it happen is another. The recently completed mile-long section of I-80 cost $4.3 million to build in 1966 and $10.5 million to reconstruct in 1990. UDOT estimates total cost of its freeway rebuilding program at $892 million. That doesn't include annual maintenance on other stretches of freeway and another $800 million in improvements of other state highways that feed the interstate.

With a price tag like that, Findlay is concerned about where the money will come from.

Federal highways are funded through a gasoline tax, the proceeds of which are placed in the federal Highway Trust Fund. Congress just increased the tax 5 cents and the Bush administration has promised to release more money from the bulging multibillion-dollar trust fund. But movements toward more state participation and cutting subsidies to less populated states threaten Utah's allocation.

UDOT expects its federal allotment from the trust fund to drop to about $100 million annually, which won't be enough to cover the needed interstate rebuilding. To make up the difference, Findlay said the state will have to consider increasing state fuel taxes, local property taxes, registration fees, fines to overweight trucks or implementing toll roads.

While Findlay or Topham won't say when UDOT will push for a tax increase, they say it's inevitable.

"We can't just die now and say we've got this in place," Topham said. "We need another push. We need another Dwight D. Eisenhower with a national vision and goal with transportation."

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(DESERET NEWS GRAPHIC)

Utah's interstate freeways

Original completion date:

1972

Actual completion date:

1990

Initial cost per mile:

$1 million

Today's cost per mile:

$4-5 million

First section completed:

I-15 Aderson Junction to Pintura, Washington County, July 8, 1959

Last section completed:

I-15, Tremonton to Plymouth, Box Elder County, Nov. 20, 1990.

Most expensive per mile:

Southeast I-215 ($11 million per mile average)

Busiest stretch:

I-15 at 1700 South in Salt Lake City (150,200 cars daily).

Most scenic:

I-70 between Green River and Fremont Junction.

Loneliest stretch:

I-70 (2,300 vehicles per day)