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  • Brant Ward San Francisco Chronicle Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom does the honors with a blow torch Monday during a ceremony officially opening the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after a five-day closure.

  • Brant Ward San Francisco Chronicle Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom does the honors with a blow torch Monday during a ceremony officially opening the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after a five-day closure.

Bay Bridge opens at last

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 12, 2014 - 7:26 pm

OAKLAND – This was not the opening that California state officials once envisioned, with little fanfare and no public celebration. But then, neither was this project – the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge finally opening years late and billions of dollars over budget.

As dignitaries gathered Monday to cheer completion of the most expensive public works project in California history, they did so at an invitation-only event with a stable of speakers, a reading by the state's poet laureate and the ceremonial cutting of a chain.

Gov. Jerry Brown did not attend.

Nearly a quarter-century after the Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed part of the old bridge, highlighting its weakness, the new $6.4 billion span opened Monday night in time for today's morning commute.

"It's about time, everybody, isn't it?" state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, asked the opening-ceremony crowd.

The opening follows a five-day closure and years of cost overruns and construction lapses, the latest of which – involving broken bolts – left the opening date uncertain until mid-August. Even now, questions remain about the bridge's structural integrity, including concerns about the brittleness of bolts and corroded tendons in a skyway viaduct.

Yet transportation officials say the structure is far safer than the existing one, and politicians are eager to move traffic onto it.

"Is it perfect? I doubt it," said former Gov. Gray Davis, one of four governors heavily involved in the project. "But people can use it with a peace of mind that, frankly, they couldn't for (24) years."

Davis said, "What we have, I believe, is a first-class bridge that people can use with pride, and feel perfectly safe, and the time has long since come for that bridge to open."

At the event on Monday, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, called the view of the bridge from the roadway "gorgeous" and "beyond description."

The suspension span, with a single, 525-foot tower, is the product of a design selection process that raised hackles in the Bay Area for years, ever since then-Gov. Pete Wilson proposed a simple viaduct that Bay Area politicians complained was too plain.

"They wanted something unique and aspirational," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who served on a bridge design panel in the 1990s. "If somebody had told me it was going to cost $6.4 billion … and put 270,000 commuters every day on that bridge at risk for an extra 10 years, there's no way we would have picked this design. I wouldn't have voted for it."

DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said he is "confident that the new bridge is safer" but that his committee will hold hearings even after the bridge opens to "find out what happened, hold people accountable if necessary and learn from our mistakes."

"There was a time that we could do a big project on time, on budget, and that has changed," he said. "And we need to find out why."

The questions are not new. It was nearly a decade ago that the bridge's cost and management problems invited comparisons to the Big Dig infrastructure project in Boston. The bridge's estimated cost now is nearly five times the $1.3 billion projected in 1996.

"It's just ridiculous," said Sean Walsh, who was involved as a Wilson aide in bridge discussions.

"Think about it. You could have built a dam. Hell, you could have built a nuclear power plant for what you paid in extra costs for that thing."

He said the tower "is like a zit at the end of the bridge."

At the bridge ceremony Monday, Juan Felipe Herrera, whom Brown appointed California poet laureate last year, read a poem he composed for the occasion. He called the bridge, among other things, a "light unto itself."

When the original Bay Bridge opened in 1936, it did so at an estimated cost of $77 million. Festivities included parades, an air show and a ball.

In February, when Brown went to the site to start a countdown to the opening on live TV, the governor said the celebration this year "ought to be just as big this time" as it was then. He expected thousands of people to attend a public event on the bridge, with activities including running and a bicycle race.

Within months, however, the discovery of broken bolts on the bridge threatened to delay the project's opening. By the time a temporary retrofit was approved and the opening date confirmed, officials said it was too late to organize a public celebration.

Brown and first lady Anne Gust Brown spent the Labor Day weekend in Michigan, attending a Gust Brown family reunion.

The governor issued only a tweet about the bridge, last week: "The old Bay Bridge is closed – finally – and we're getting ready for the new."

With Brown a no-show, it was up to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to give the keynote speech. He said he was reminded of his Jesuit education at Santa Clara University and that "God's delays are not God's denials." Said Newsom, "We're finally here."

He and the other public officials walked to the toll plaza, where Newsom put on gloves and cut through a chain with a blow torch. Then the dignitaries went to cars parked on the bridge for a ceremonial first ride.

Karen Trapenberg Frick, assistant director of the University of California Transportation Center, headquartered at UC Berkeley, said the bridge's difficulties will likely be remembered for decades "in the mythology of the bridge" even after pressing news about the project fades.

But as a technological achievement, she said, the bridge is likely to inspire a more visceral reaction, a fascination, tinged with darkness, that people have for major public works.

"On the one hand, it's sublime in its presence," she said. "On the other hand, there's some danger – that you could fall off the bridge, that the dam could break."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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