Five burning questions on the Bay Bridge

As new $6.4 billion span opens, people seek answers on cost, time, safety, traffic -- and what about that gremlin?

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, with the old span in the background.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After more than a decade of planning and renovation, the wait is finally over for the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The side of the bridge connecting Oakland to Treasure Island in the middle of the bay closed Wednesday night and is scheduled to reopen early Tuesday morning, welcoming traffic for the first time. An estimated 270,000 vehicles are expected to drive across the nearly 2-mile span each day. But drivers won’t be the only ones welcome; the new span offers a 15-foot-wide path for pedestrians and bicyclists to take in the vast views. Many residents still have questions about the notably long, expensive and troubled project. We hit the streets in the run-up to the opening to track down those questions and get some answers.

Here are five burning questions on people’s minds:

‘Is all the retrofitting actually going to work?’

Not surprisingly, safety is the top issue for many. Jorel Mee, 37, of Mountain View, noted the numerous times she’s heard about efforts to fix the bridge. She asked, “Is all the retrofitting actually going to work?” The concern stems from an incident in March, in which 32 high-strength steel support rods cracked. A July 8 announcement calling off the planned Labor Day opening didn’t sit well with taxpayers, but the reversal of that decision just two days later, after necessary repairs were made, didn’t sit well with those concerned about safety.

A portion of the Bay Bridge's eastern span collapsed after the 1989 earthquake.
Gary Weber/AFP/Getty Images

Officials are reassuring the public that the span is sound. Construction crews began working on a system to replace the broken bolts in early August and have said they are confident about the fix. Their biggest concern is regaining the trust of the public. Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), told CBS News, “I absolutely feel confident that this bridge is safe.” Dougherty even went as far as to say that if a big earthquake hits, “I think this is one of the places I’d rather be standing.”

‘What took so long?’

Another recurring question came from Piedmont resident Bill Brandenburg, 54, who asked, “What took so long?” He thought the bridge should have been completed months ago. In August 2002, state legislators, fed up with ever-increasing costs and constantly pushed back completion dates, set a target opening date of 2009. In 2004 it was pushed back again, to 2010. Finally, in January 2006, Caltrans announced that the new bridge span would debut in 2013.

The ever-changing completion date was accompanied by constantly soaring cost estimates. In August 1997 the expected price of the bridge, sans bike lanes or shoulders, was $1.3 billion. The cost climbed to $2.6 billion in April 2001 and then was hiked again in August 2004 to $5.1 billion. Under new management in December 2007, the cost escalated to $5.6 billion. After demanding an explanation for rising costs and later opening dates, a California state auditor’s report attributed part of the problem to the U.S. Navy’s opposition. The Navy complained that building the replacement span north of the current bridge would hurt its development plans for Treasure Island. After many setbacks, the date to reopen was finally set for Labor Day 2013. Total cost: $6.4 billion.

Why did it cost so much?

A common question is why the new span ended up costing five times the original estimated amount. To keep it simple, the combination of expensive regulatory and labor environments, strict seismic requirements and political debates over design and alignment led to the extreme price tag. Caltrans Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano said, “Individually, many of these factors don’t add up to a large percentage of the overall cost, but put it all together and they add up.” Efforts to lower the price were made by importing steel from China, but it didn’t make a notable difference in the end. While politicians were busy debating over the aesthetics of the new bridge, China’s rapid expansion sparked a hot global steel market, making the material pricier. In addition, one of the biggest reasons for a surge in cost was ensuring that the span would be strong enough to endure the huge earthquake that engineers predict will shake the Bay Area in the next 150 years. The bridge has advanced safety features such as beams designed to bend to absorb shock to the bridge tower, and other beams that will allow the roadbed to flex.

Traffic on the approach to the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

‘Is the traffic going to be better?’

Richard Ganaban, 42, of Daly City, had a more personal concern: “Is the traffic going to be better with the new bridge?” Because the new span has the same number of lanes as the previous section, traffic is expected to remain the same. Though traffic won’t change, the views will be nicer while you’re stuck in it. The new span features side-by-side decks in place of the previous stacked decks, offering panoramic views of San Francisco and the East Bay.

What about the gremlin?

East Bay resident Amy Eastman, 24, was most concerned with the history of the bridge. “I want to know if they are going to put the gremlin on the new bridge.”

A look at the troll on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
Lance Iversen/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

In the wake of the October 1989 earthquake, a gremlin was created by local artist Bill Roan and welded onto the east span of the bridge to protect drivers as they trek across. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but many believe the gremlin is the reason the bridge has been safe for the past 24 years.

The Bay Bridge Project Management Team is fighting to have the gremlin conserved. According to a report titled “For Whom the Troll Dwells” (PDF), the team “recommends that the Bay Bridge troll be preserved along with the upper deck beam from the deck section above Pier E-9 on which he now resides.” Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman Randy Rentschler told SFGate that there have been “a lot of discussions about this at the highest levels, but so far no decision has been made.”

For now, the future of the original 18-inch bridge gremlin is as foggy as a morning in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood.

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