Twenty Four years after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the Oakland Bay Bridge, the Cypress Freeway and the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, the Bay Area, appropriately celebrated Labor Day by proclaiming “We did build that Bridge.”
The new, $6.4 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been opened to traffic after years of delays and cost overruns, carrying its first drivers across the bay late Monday night just hours before the beginning of the work week.
The reopening came after the California Highway Patrol conducted a final security check and toll takers resumed their positions following a five-day closure as crews completed striping, railing and other final details on the new gleaming white span.
Cars began lining up hours earlier in an attempt to be among the first on the new span, and CHP officers led a line of drivers across at about 10:15 p.m., some seven hours before the 5 a.m. Tuesday reopening that was estimated before the closure.
At a modest inaugural ceremony, the new, self-anchored suspension bridge with its looming, single white tower was praised as a dramatic safety upgrade over its predecessor and a beautiful example of public art.
Among those in attendance were Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Hon. Willie Brown, former House Speaker and Mayor of SF, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland Councilmembers Lynette McElhaney, Libby Schaff, and Pat Kernighan along with Port Commissioner Ces Buttner.
The bridge lands in McElhaney’s West Oakland District, which also is the hub for the East Bay’s intermodal transportation services.
“It’s nice to finally celebrate, this long anticipated new span,” said McElhaney. “It’s also nice to celebrate the workers on Labor Day.
Both mayors noted the historic significance of two Chinese American city leaders repeating the stylized version of the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad. Holding a golden spike, Quan reminded the attendees how the new bridge was a culmination of the work of 19th century Chinese workers also helped build California’s infrastructure. Earlier there was recognition that some of some formerly incarcerated workers who also worked on the new span.
“I hope this is more than just connecting two land masses,” said Newsom. “I hope that the progress that’s being represented at this moment is for a generation to dream big dreams and to do big things.”
Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, cut a chain with a blow torch to mark the opening after leading those gathered around the bridge’s toll plaza in a countdown to the reopening.
There was no public celebration with tens of thousands of pedestrians and fireworks as originally planned. Instead, after years of delays and cost overruns, the opening of one of the state’s most expensive public works projects was marked with a relatively low-key event.
The new span replaces a structure that was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It is designed to withstand the strongest earthquake estimated by seismologists to occur at the site over a 1,500-year period.
“Despite the journey’s length, it has been completed before the arrival of our next big earthquake,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “And thank goodness for that.”
Heminger was among numerous officials who spoke at the event, which included a poem about the bridge by California’s poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera.
“(This project) has at times inspired me, challenged me, frustrated me and today, after seeing the final product, it impresses me with its beauty, its grace and its strength,” said Brian Kelly, who heads the state’s Business, Transportation & Housing Agency.
The entire bridge closed Wednesday night so crews could do final work, and they were still striping, putting up signs and putting down roadway markers Monday, said bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon. Some barrier railing also needed to be installed.
The new section of bridge has been under construction for almost a decade and follows years of political bickering, engineering challenges and cost overruns.
“California must do a better job going forward on all of our public works projects,” he said.
In March, more than two-dozen rods used to anchor the roadway to important earthquake safety structures cracked after they were tightened. The discovery threatened to delay the bridge’s opening by months.
The bridge will open with a temporary fix for the broken rods while the permanent repair, expected to be completed in December, is being installed.
Transportation officials approved the temporary fix last month and voted to open the bridge as originally planned around the Labor Day weekend. But Gordon said there was not enough time for the public celebration that originally called for a bridge walk with more than 100,000 people, fireworks, a half marathon and a concert.