Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Shiny, safer span is new kid on the bay

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

Drivers, get ready for something new by the bay.

Early on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, the state will unveil its new Bay Bridge eastern span, a controversial project years in the making.

The $6.4 billion bridge will replace the 77-year-old eastern span, which was deemed seismically unsafe when it famously dropped a section of its upper deck during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new span is seismically safer, officials say. And it's clearly an architectural upgrade from the boxy, workhorse bridge it replaces.

But bridges on the bay have a lofty standard to uphold stylistically – and this one will not be judged merely on how it compares to its predecessor. Not when the imperial Golden Gate Bridge hovers in the distance, and the other half of the Bay Bridge – the western span with its stately suspension towers – perches just on the other side of Yerba Buena Island.

Will the new span measure up? Does it make a statement worthy of its dramatic locale?

It clearly is not shying from the challenge. Its claim for distinction starts with its distinctively clean color scheme. Bay Bridge commuters may feel like they've hitched their old gray mare to the post and mounted a white stallion.

The white look is a nod to the big cargo cranes looming in the distance at the Port of Oakland. But it also has a Space Age inspiration, according to one of the bridge's key architects, Donald MacDonald. MacDonald – who calls it the white span – says he was thinking of the Saturn V rocket when he penciled the color and shape for the bridge's signature suspension tower.

The 525-foot tower – really four connected columns – is a sleek complement to the suspension towers on the Bay Bridge western span and the Golden Gate.

It probably is the most controversial architectural element of the new bridge. (We're not counting the bridge's serious functional issues involving broken bolts and inspection inadequacies.)

At one point, the suspension section was not part of the design. But some Bay Area leaders complained the plain vanilla viaduct design would look like a freeway overcrossing, unworthy of a major bridge on the bay. They called for something iconic, albeit expensive, and got the tower.

But the bridge's most unusual design feature may be the fact that the span is really two bridges, side by side. That means Oakland-bound drivers no longer will be trapped in a claustrophobic, steel-caged lower deck east of Yerba Buena Island. When drivers emerge from the island tunnel, they'll find a panoramic view.

"The whole East Bay is just open in a view that motorists haven't seen in more than 50 years," said John Goodwin of the Bay Area Toll Authority. "You are freed. It is absolutely revolutionary."

Almost. For now, the old eastern span will loom slightly overhead to the right, blocking some of the view. It will take three years to tear it down, officials said. When it finally comes down, crews will finish connecting a bike and pedestrian path on the bridge from the Oakland touchdown to Yerba Buena Island.

The westbound view, leaving Oakland, will be a good one as well, bridge builders say. The new span is angled slightly north, with no steel girders blocking views, giving drivers a good look at San Francisco and the Golden Gate.

The bridge lighting system is intriguing. By day, the rows of light standards look like toothpicks poked into the otherwise clean skyway. At night, though, they will join with the swooping white lights on the bridge's suspension cables to give the structure a sharp profile on the bay skyline, viewable from miles away, and offer drivers a clean, glare-free view of the road surface.

The bridge has a lot to live up to. Seismically, it is supposed to stand solid in a major earthquake. Its designers also say that – architecturally – they expect it to stand tall over time. In less than two weeks, the public gets to see for itself.

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

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