Hundreds of motorists followed CHP patrols cars and motorcycles starting at 10 p.m. last night to be among the first to cross the Bay Bridge when it re-opened seven hours ahead of schedule.
Motorists had been waiting in nearby gs stations and empty parking lots awaiting the opening of the newly-constructed eastern span when word leaked out Monday afternoon that the bridge would open earlier than planned.
Oakland and state police patrolled the area after a 3 p.m. celebration ceremony to stop traffic from lining up to be among the first to cross the bridge.
The bridge had been closed since last Wednesday while construction crews finalized work on the new eastern span connecting Oakland to Yerba Buena Island.
The bridge was scheduled to be reopened by 5 a.m. today but the work was finished faster than anticipated, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said Monday.
Dougherty made the announcement at a celebration held in Oakland Monday afternoon for the new span, a self-anchored suspension bridge that is replacing an old cantilever bridge that opened more than 75 years ago.
Elected leaders and transit officials Monday held a ceremony in Oakland to celebrate the imminent opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
The ceremony was attended by hundreds of invited guests near the bridge's toll plaza. A larger public celebration of the bridge was scrapped after broken anchor bolts on the new span left the opening date in limbo.
A temporary fix was eventually devised and the bridge was shut down last Wednesday to begin the final preparations to open the new span.
Several speakers at Monday's ceremony remarked upon the lengthy process of getting the new span designed and built after the 1989 Loma Prieta
earthquake collapsed part of the upper deck of the old cantilever bridge, which opened in 1936.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director Steve Heminger cited the many challenges faced during the project, some with technical issues like the broken bolts and others involving political battles over the span's design that led to escalating costs.
The bridge is opening "at long last," Heminger said. "This truly is a landmark event."
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said legislators "will review and learn from our mistakes" to ensure that similar delays and cost
overruns do not happen on other large infrastructure projects in the state.
Other speakers chose to highlight the beauty of the bridge, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who said the new span "serves as a monument to creativity and ingenuity," while state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) said it will serve as "a gorgeous piece of public art" in the Bay Area.
Many gave praise to the workers who helped construct the new span and said it was fitting that the bridge was opening on Labor Day.
The keynote speech was given by Gavin Newsom, the state's lieutenant governor and the former mayor of San Francisco. Newsom said the wait will be worth it for the beautiful new bridge.
"God's delays are not God's denials," Newsom said.
Newsom was given the honor of cutting a ceremonial chain in front of the toll plaza, then joined other officials and guests in 1930s-era vehicles for an inaugural procession across the bridge.
The opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge marks the end of a lengthy process that began shortly after a section of the old span collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake, killing one person and forcing it to be closed for a month.
Elected leaders and transportation officials realized soon after the temblor on Oct. 17, 1989, that the span needed to be retrofitted or replaced so the bridge would be safe during an earthquake, but squabbling over the design and route for a new span delayed work for many years.
"The story is ending well but the road to get here was far too long and far too winding," said Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director Steve Heminger, who has been involved in the $6.4 billion project to build the new span almost from the beginning because he was its project manager.
Former Alameda County Supervisor Mary King, who chaired the MTC panel that selected the design for the bridge, said the fact that it took so long to build the new span "is one of the great public process failures."
In fact, King said the long delay in building the span even though it was an important public safety project "takes some of the glow" off of her happiness that it is finally open to the driving public.
"I was hoping it would be successful and stand for a long time as a symbol for the region," King said. "It was a great idea but sometimes the best-laid plans go awry."
Caltrans chief engineer Brian Maroney said after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, which damaged freeways in the Los Angeles area, engineers
were told to begin planning for a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge but there were delays "for all sorts of reasons."
Maroney said, "Some of us were frustrated by that. I'll never totally understand it. We were competing against time."
Heminger said, "There was not just an engineering debate, there was a political debate. We have a natural ability to argue about just about anything and we proceeded to do just that."
Heminger said the first decision that had to be made was whether to retrofit the existing span or build a completely new span.
He said Caltrans' initial strategy was to retrofit the existing bridge but they decided to only retrofit the western span because that section was in better shape, as suspension bridges are more flexible.
Retrofitting was not a good strategy for the eastern span because it was "so much work and expense" and there were questions about how much of lifespan it had left, Heminger said.
The next question was picking a design. After much debate, the MTC voted on June 24, 1998, to approve a single-tower bridge with an iconic self-anchored suspension span, the longest such structure in the world at a length of 2,047 feet.
Transportation officials estimated at that time that it would cost $1.5 billion to build the span and it could be opened to traffic by late 2003 or early 2004.
King recalled that "there were a lot of opinions" and "intense discussions" about the best design. She said that in her role as committee chair, "I would try to herd the cats to try to get a unanimous decision."
She succeeded on the single-tower design, which the committee approved by an 11-1 vote, with Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris casting the lone "no" vote and two members abstaining.
Harris called the design "a bridge to the past, not the future" and "a highway on stilts" and threatened to file suit to stop it.
More information about the new bridge can be found online at baybridgeinfo.org.