Bay Bridge

Bay Bridge closure Wednesday foreshadows opening of new span Sept. 3

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will close for construction for the fifth time this Labor Day weekend, forcing drivers around the bay to find alternative routes.

This time, though, the shutdown – which starts Wednesday night – will lead to a historic moment. After more than a decade of sometimes troubled construction and cost increases, the new $6.4 billion Bay Bridge eastern span will welcome traffic early on the morning of Sept. 3 to cheers and sighs of relief among some state officials.

"There is a great deal of excitement mixed with a considerable measure of relief to finally bring this project online," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority, one of several agencies that worked on the project.

"Thank goodness," he said. "Nothing about this project has been easy."

The bridge, under construction since January 2002, has been described by some state officials as one of the largest public works project in history. Caltrans and Bay Area transportation authorities decided to build the span after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a section of roadway on the now 77-year-old bridge, forcing a month-long closure for repairs.

The western section of the Bay Bridge, between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, underwent seismic upgrades a few years ago.

The new eastern span is designed to withstand the intensity of shaking that comes from an earthquake "once every 1,500 years," Goodwin said.

But the span has been the focus of numerous technical concerns, controversies and political fights. A series of Sacramento Bee investigations revealed problems with construction and testing that prompted lingering uncertainty about whether the bridge is as sturdy as some state officials say. Documented problems, reviewed by industry experts, include corroded tendons in the skyway viaduct, doubts about concrete strength in the foundation of the bridge tower, and faulty welds in the base of that tower.

Leading engineers said the Transportation Department and its contractors violated basic construction and testing practices when building the tower and skyway. A Bee investigation showed that the agency's panel of expert advisers, who certified the bridge as safe, were burdened by financial and professional conflicts of interest. A bill working its way through the Legislature would authorize a wide-ranging review by a new expert panel of the new span's problems.

Earlier this year, anchor rods in seismic stabilizers broke, forcing state officials earlier this month to commission a temporary fix to open the bridge. That work was completed last week, bridge builders said.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said the bridge is solid and thanked motorists for their patience during the construction closures and roadway reconfigurations.

"The new eastern span is not only a safe bridge, it is a beautiful bridge and a landmark that will be admired for many generations," Dougherty said in an emailed statement. "The long wait is over."

The controversy is not, though. In a statement issued last week, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said his committee "will continue to examine the many pitfalls that have plagued this project."

"After the countless headaches this project has caused, we need to identify what went wrong and how we can prevent similar frustrations on future mega-projects," he said. "There needs to be accountability and meaningful reform at Caltrans."

The closure of the old bridge will begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Its replacement is scheduled to open at 5 a.m. Sept. 3.

Officials initially had planned to allow people to walk on the bridge for a day before it opened but canceled that event for lack of time.

Bridge officials say this week's work should go smoothly and there should be no problem reopening for the Tuesday morning commute.

The biggest task will be paving a connecting road from the Oakland toll plaza to the base of the bridge, and some demolition on part of the old bridge's touchdown ramp.

"This is not technically challenging stuff, but there is a lot of material that has to be trucked in," Goodwin said. "You need time for the asphalt to cure."

Highway officials are warning motorists to make allowances during the closure for congestion on freeways, especially around other bridges. Traffic is expected to be heaviest on the Golden Gate Bridge, with added traffic as well on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the San Mateo Bridge.

BART will add cars to its service, and plans to run trains continuously through the night during the closure. Ferry companies report they also plan to bulk up service.

"We are bracing ourselves," Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman Amorette Ko said. "We have seen increases of 20 percent" on the Golden Gate during past Bay Bridge closures.

Ko said traffic will be heavy during commute hours Thursday and Friday, but possibly even worse in the middle of the day during the three-day weekend, when leisure travelers head to and from the city.

"The earlier you cross the bridge, the better," she said.

Ko warned those who have not used the Golden Gate in recent months to be aware that the bridge district now uses all-electronic tolling. That means no stopping at the toll booths to pay.

"We have virtually eliminated the backup at the toll plaza," Ko said.

Cameras in the toll area now capture license plate numbers, and the bridge district mails the car owner a bill. Drivers also can go online and prepay for single or multiple trips. Most regular Golden Gate Bridge users pay via Fastrak, with transponders in their vehicles to register each bridge passage.

The best source of information about local traffic conditions and transportation alternatives – including ferries, BART, buses and trains – is the website, bridge officials said.

When the new span opens, bridge officials say, motorists will experience a smoother, more open feel, with excellent views around San Francisco Bay.

The new span consists of two side-by-side viaducts instead of the upper and lower decks of the existing eastern and western spans.

The most striking feature of the bridge is the suspension span tower: a 525-foot-tall white needle-like structure that holds a mile of cable.

The bridge includes a bike and pedestrian path between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. That path is not yet finished. Bridge officials say they also have more electrical work, landscaping and seismic retrofit work to complete.

The original eastern span is expected to be disassembled over the next three years.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

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