SAN FRANCISCO: When traffic flows across a new stretch of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for the first time, it will do so nearly a quarter-century after a deadly earthquake during the 1989 World Series collapsed two 50-foot sections of the old structure.
The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake hit just as millions tuned in to watch Game 3 of the “Bay Bridge World Series” between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, killing 63 people and causing as much as $10 billion in damage.
The Bay Bridge failure, one of the temblor’s most memorable images, prompted one of the costliest public works projects in state history. The $6.4 billion project finally draws to a close after decades of political bickering, engineering challenges and billions in cost overruns. The new eastern part of the span should be ready to open as scheduled by 5 a.m. Tuesday after being closed for five days while crews put on the finishing touches, transportation officials said Saturday.
The years of past delays magnified public safety concerns over the need for a permanent solution as the original, seismically unsafe bridge — which opened during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt — was patched up and continued operating.
Highlighting the decades of complications, the scheduled opening of the reworked bridge was in jeopardy again this year after crews discovered dozens of defective rods used to anchor the roadway to important earthquake safety structures. The bridge will open with a temporary fix for these broken rods while the permanent repair, expected to be completed in December, is being installed.
Issues with the rods and myriad delays have left many commuters with a feeling of trepidation about the bridge, even though state officials say it’s one of the safest in the world.
The self-anchored suspension bridge with a looming, single white tower was designed to endure 150 years and withstand the strongest earthquake estimated by seismologists to occur at the site over a 1,500-year period.
Steve Heminger, chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, the project’s watchdog, said the span is far safer than the current crossing.
Heminger said the bridge “is not only pivotal to the economy but also plays a critical role in helping us recover.”
In the decades since the earthquake, the bridge replacement project overcame many hurdles.
An initial scientific recommendation following Loma Prieta called for retrofitting the current span, not replacing it. A National Science Foundation team that studied damage to the bridge said in 1992 that the current eastern portion should be retrofitted for an estimated cost of $230 million.
But in 1996, the California Department of Transportation’s Seismic Advisory Board disagreed with those findings, saying the cost of replacing the old bridge would be comparable with retrofitting it.
At that time, Caltrans proposed building a simple concrete causeway — an elevated freeway — at a cost comparable to a retrofit.
But Bay Area leaders blasted that design as too vanilla, saying the area deserved a span that would complement the grandeur of the Golden Gate.
The self-anchored, single tower design was accepted in 1998, and Caltrans estimated it would cost $1.5 billion.
However, the ambition of the project created technical challenges that were not factored into original cost estimates — hurdles that delayed construction by years. During the delays the price of steel increased, and unforeseen engineering challenges created a need for more workers.