SAN FRANCISCO — When traffic flows across the new stretch of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for the first time this week, it will do so 24 years 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 up to $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 California history. The $6.4 billion project draws to a close after decades of political bickering, engineering challenges and billions in cost overruns. The new bridge is scheduled to open by 5 a.m. Tuesday.
The 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.
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Highlighting the decades of complications, the scheduled opening of the new 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 orders of magnitude safer than the current crossing.
“Some bridges in California have been built not to collapse in an earthquake, but they may be out of service,” Heminger said. “We couldn’t have that with the Bay Bridge, which is not only pivotal to the economy but also plays a critical role in helping us recover.”
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 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.
Costs skyrocketed, leading former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 to propose scrapping the single-tower design in favor of the cheaper raised freeway concept. But the foundations of the bridge’s soaring tower were already laid, so in 2005 the project continued.
The project’s problems also exposed a public-works system that is no longer equipped to handle such ambitious projects, said Richard Walker, an emeritus geography professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has studied a century of public-works projects in the U.S.
“America doesn’t do big infrastructure projects that well anymore,” Walker said. “California used to be at the leading edge … they built the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge, still one of the beloved structures in the world.
“In those days, there were far fewer regulations, which allowed builders to put together local steel and cement plants for these projects … assembling a whole team was easier.”
Bridge officials say the public will come around to the new bridge. It is wider, with five roomy lanes on each section. The new span was also built with roadway shoulders — room for stalled vehicles that will help improve traffic flow.
Over time, as concerns are addressed and the old bridge fades into history, some believe the project’s many black eyes will be forgotten.
“I don’t think the bridge will ‘wow’ people right way because of all these black eyes,” Walker said. “But after 10 years it will be seen as a nice piece of engineering and they’ll be proud of it later on.”