More than 150 people gathered under Nipomo’s new Highway 101 bridge Friday afternoon to celebrate what officials called “a momentous occasion.”

Over the roar of traffic whizzing overhead, more than half a dozen local, county and state officials spoke about the commitment and cooperation required to bring the community its second freeway interchange.

“This is a true milestone to bring this to completion today,” noted Tim Gubbins, deputy director of Caltrans District 5.

Then, to the cheers and applause of the crowd, officials cut the ribbon — a length of yellow caution tape — to officially open the second phase of the Willow Road extension project.

The Highway 101 on- and offramps are scheduled to open today.

Willow Road now provides a direct route from Highway 1, Blacklake and the Woodlands on the west to North Thompson Road, Nipomo High School and Olde Towne Nipomo on the east.

In addition to saving motorists time and fuel and reducing traffic congestion and aggravation on West Tefft Street, the new roadway is expected to improve emergency services.

“It really boils down to response times,” County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “It’s hard to clock it, but for a unit responding from Arroyo Grande, probably a good 10 to 15 minutes will be saved by being able to jump off the freeway here as opposed to driving beyond to Tefft Street and then coming back.”

But the first wheels to roll through the intersection after the yellow tape fluttered aside were on four sleek cars from Arroyo Grande’s Big Ditch Derby that zoomed down the hill from the west, piloted by helmeted young racers.

Officials attributed the large crowd of spectators to the importance of the new route.

“This is a big project in Nipomo, the biggest we’ve seen in years,” 4th District Supervisor Paul Teixeira said.

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, who was 4th District supervisor when the project finally got the green light, agreed.

“This is as exciting as it gets, almost as exciting as seeing my first child being born,” he said.

San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department Deputy Director Dave Flynn described Achadjian as “the No. 1 proponent of this project” who pushed its approval and went to Sacramento multiple times to seek funding.

“Looking back now, all the effort — every town hall meeting, dealing with the neighbors and property owners, the easments and right of ways, every penny I begged for — all of it was worthwhile,” Achadjian said.

But as with the other speakers, Achadjian was quick to give credit to everyone involved, from individuals, organizations and government agencies to the engineering and construction companies.

He also presented certificates of appreciation to Dan Woodson, who served as the South County Advisory Council and its Traffic and Circulation Committee chairman as well as the Nipomo Arts Commission liaison.

The NAC and artists Cheryl Weiss and Barbara Westfall also received certificates for providing the artwork of quail and Temettate Ridge that grace the concrete retaining walls and bridge.

“I can’t believe the detail they put in (compared to) all the other bridges,” said nearby resident Vince Hazelton, referring to the embedded art.

“We live right up here,” he said, pointing west toward Hetrick Avenue, “and we have some good friends who live right over there,” he continued, pointing east toward North Thompson Road.

“So it’s going to be pretty neat to go straight through.”

After the ceremony, a long line of cars driven by local residents cruised slowly westward under the bridge.

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