Bridge officials learned from experience with past closures 

click to enlarge The bridge will be closed in the westbound direction until Tuesday morning. - SF EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • SF Examiner File Photo
  • The bridge will be closed in the westbound direction until Tuesday morning.

It has been nearly six years since the first multiday closure of the Bay Bridge for construction related to the new span, but bridge officials haven’t forgotten the lessons of that experience.

Officials foolishly kept a single westbound lane of traffic open during that Labor Day weekend in 2006, and public outreach failed to alert travelers about what that meant.

“People drove over from Oakland, but didn’t realize that they couldn’t get back,” said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the bridge. “It was like the ‘Hotel California’ — they could check in anytime they wanted, but they could never leave.”

Traffic backed up for miles, and the public blasted the closure decision. State Sen. Mark Leno was one of the motorists stuck in the quagmire, and Goodwin said the lawmaker shared his anger with the agency.

The bridge has since been closed for multiple days three more times, and officials have a better understanding of how to do so without paralyzing the region. That’s a good thing, because the current Presidents Day closure looks very much like the first one.

Just like the infamous 2006 closure, the shutdown scheduled to end Tuesday is only affecting one direction of traffic. The eastbound lanes remain open.

When plans to rebuild the 75-year-old eastern span of the bridge were first conceived, there were no plans to shut down traffic. In fact, politicians urged bridge officials to avoid closures at all costs, Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said.

“Closing the bridge has a tremendous impact on the regional economy, so there was definitely an effort to avoid that,” Ney said. “But as the project progressed, we realized that it was physically impossible for us to carry out specific construction work while still allowing traffic.”

After the 2006 debacle, the MTC and Caltrans ramped up outreach in anticipation of a planned 2007 Labor Day closure. A slab of bridge the size of a football field needed to be demolished and replaced with an upgrade on Yerba Buena Island.

Bay Area legislators were asked to help provide publicity, BART provided overnight service and ferry providers added more trips. Media outlets were saturated with warnings the bridge would be closed. The closure went off without a hitch, and the traffic backups that plagued the first shutdown were absent.

That set the stage for Caltrans’ most ambitious project to date. Over the 2009 Labor Day weekend, crews removed a 3,200-ton section of bridge and replaced it with a temporary S-curve detour.

While the bridge rebuild has been plagued with cost overruns and scheduling setbacks, it would be even further behind if not for these closures. Holiday weekends are chosen for the shutdowns since traffic is typically lighter.

“For something like the 2007 project, we probably could have kept a single lane of traffic open and finished the project in three weeks,” Goodwin said. “But by closing the bridge, we were able to get it done in a single weekend.”

Officials are confident about this closure dodging the drama of the first such event.

“We, as a region, are now accustomed to the Bay Bridge being closed,” Goodwin said. “We understand that it’s not that bad when the bridge is shut down, as long as we prepare for it.”

Past and present Bay Bridge disruptions

Labor Day 2006: Eastbound lanes closed from Sept. 1 until Sept. 5. Construction crews demolished 1,000 feet of the western span near Beale Street, but project marred by motorist confusion and delays.

Labor Day 2007: Bridge closed in both directions from Aug. 31 until Sept. 4. Crews demolished football field-sized segment near Yerba Buena Island and replaced it with a more seismically stable slab. Delays and congestion were not nearly as bad as in 2006.

Labor Day 2009: Bridge closed in both directions from Sept. 3 until Sept. 8. Project involved most ambitious undertaking in Caltrans history — removing and replacing a 3,200-ton section of bridge 150 feet above Yerba Buena Island. Then inspectors noticed a cracked steel beam. Crews worked 70 hours to fix it, and Caltrans avoided lengthening the planned closure.

Late-October 2009: On Oct. 27, the temporary harness for the broken steel beam snapped and shattered onto bridge. Officials closed bridge in both directions until Nov. 2. BART set ridership records during closure.

Presidents Day 2012: Westbound lanes scheduled to  be closed until 5 a.m. Tuesday to construct a detour near the toll plaza. Bad conditions could hamper progress.

Late 2013: Last planned closure, tentatively set for Labor Day, will close bridge for at least four days. Rebuilt span scheduled to officially open after shutdown.

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Will Reisman

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