Jacob Dekema, or Mr. Caltrans as he was affectionately called, passed away at the age of 101 on April 16th. His passion for building freeways helped shape Southern California’s transportation landscape.
He became the Caltrans director in 1955 and his vision was particularly realized in San Diego County. When he started there was only 25 miles of freeway but by the time he retired a quarter of a century later, there were 485 miles of interstate. These miles of roads connected the beach to the island and opened up Mission Valley.
“He was an iconic figure in the San Diego region, and much of San Diego’s transportation history bears his fingerprints,” Laurie Berman, the current district director for Caltrans in San Diego told the LA Times. “He was a one-of-a-kind.”
Tens of millions of federal transportation dollars went to California during Dekema’s time as the director. Like a true artist he would complain that his vision was not realized when the money dried up.
Dekema also faced critics from both ends of the spectrum during his career, people complained that he was building too many freeways while others complained he wasn’t building fast enough.
Most engineers wanted to designed highways as a focal point and as an aesthetic art piece but Dekema was known for trying to minimize a freeways impact as much as possible. He would attempt to incorporate the system into the region’s canyons to limit the effect on communities and skylines.
Dekema died of natural causes at an assisted living home in La Jolla.