The long-awaited opening of the final section of I-15 occurred Tuesday in time to accommodate holiday traffic.

"Hey! We did it!" shouted Eugene Findlay, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, in an informal response to the formal ceremonies opening the 26-mile stretch, which cost $37 million.More staid comments came from Gov. Norm Bangerter, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, Federal Highway Regional Administrator Louis N. McDonald and other state and local dignitaries. The ceremonies were held in the Riverside sheds as Utah's first wintry storm of the year precluded the planned ribbon-cutting.

"To me, this section of interstate is the most beautiful entrance into the state that we have," said Todd G. Weston, Utah Transportation commissioner for District 1.

"Since the project started, we have gone through six different directors," he said. "I say that to let you know how long this has gone on."

Weston said he first became involved with the interstate 25 years ago as a Cache County commissioner. Opening of the route is not only good for Box Elder County, but provides a good, straight route for the people of Cache County as well, he said.

Utah is the 27th state to complete its freeway system, he said. The new stretch connects to Utah's first freeway. Weston said he has driven the route from north to south and believes it is in the right place.

He alluded to the long controversy over the route for the stretch of interstate, as did several other speakers.

Bangerter said an effective transportation system is the most important thing that can be done to keep Utah competitive economically.

"We're living in times of unparalleled economic challenges. We in the government are struggling to keep systems in balance. We need to work together so we can have these highways, schools and other things," Bangerter said. He encouraged those present to stay close to the political process.

McDonald said the interstate system of which Utah is part stretches 1,347 miles, from California to Montana. He said it was fitting that the "golden spikes of I-15" should be driven close to the spot where a golden spike ceremony marked the meeting of eastern and western railroad systems. He commended Bangerter and the people of Utah for the modern milestone.

Hansen said the interstate system began with former President Eisenhower, who put a one-cent tax on gasoline to build the system. The congressman expressed hope that there would always be forward-looking people such as Eisenhower.

Box Elder County Commissioner Frank Nishiguchi said, "At last it is here, and we're grateful to have it completed. We know we are going to benefit from it."

He said the interstate may have taken two to four more years to complete if Bangerter had not gone to Washington to request $74 million more for Utah roads.

The Bear River High School band, directed by Wayne Jenson, furnished music for the occasion. The band has been invited by the international director of the National Independence Day Festival and Parade to represent Utah on July 4, 1991, in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday's ceremony was the culmination of a project for which planning began in 1958-59. Three major routes were considered, generating considerable debate in the communities through which they would pass.

In November 1970, then-Gov. Calvin Rampton headed a delegation to study the three proposed routes.

Local leaders and concerned citizens held several hearings on the proposals. Some of the concern centered on how much prime agricultural land would be affected by the various alternatives, with a related effect on local tax bases. Some residents felt the chosen route should show the natural beauty of the area to advantage.

Years after the initiation of the planning, hearings were still being held. Ultimate selection of the route opened the way to more years of construction.

Tuesday, all the years of planning, controversy and building came to fruition as the road was opened to the waiting flow of north-south traffic.