Bay Bridge reopens, but delays on its replacement mount

Crews worked round-the-clock to repair a cracked beam, but the bigger task – finishing the new eastern half of the bridge – keeps getting pushed back.

Ben Margot / AP
A California Highway Patrol officer leads motorists through a new curved roadway section as they travel across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge minutes after re-opening early Tuesday.

Delays are somewhat synonymous with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Just ask anyone who has ever crossed it at rush hour or followed the still-unfinished 20-year process to make it more earthquake resistant.

But at least this time, a delay has been averted.

Crews faced an unexpected patch job after finding a cracked eyebar support during a scheduled five-day closure for work on Bay Bridge. But they managed to reopen the bridge, one of the busiest in the world, before the rush-hour commute Tuesday morning.

Transportation officials had been warning Bay Area motorists to brace themselves for a day-long extension to the closure, saying it wouldn't open until 5 a.m. Wednesday.

The attitude around the Bay seemed to be one of begrudging acceptance. Annoyed drivers scrambled to find alternative ways – on trains, ferries, or over other congested bridges – to work but expressed a better-safe-than-sorry attitude.

"People do what they have to do. I was upset to hear about the crack, but I'm glad they fixed it," one commuter told the San Francisco Chronicle.

But the damage to the steel link was fixed as crews worked around-the-clock to patch the beam and open the bridge before 7 a.m. to the nearly 260,000 vehicles that travel over it every day.

The bridge had been closed Thursday evening so the crews could continue the process of replacing its eastern span.

The Bay Bridge is divided into two halves, with the eastern span running from Yerba Buena Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay to Oakland. A new eastern span is being constructed next to the old one, which is still in use.

Thursday's closure was intended to allow crews to attach a new half-mile detour to the old bridge. While drivers motor along the detour for the next few years, construction workers will link the new eastern span to Yerba Buena Island.

And when will that be completed? Officials say the new bridge will be finished in 2013.

But the project has been nagged by delays since officials decided to replace the eastern half of the Bay Bridge after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused a portion of it to collapse. The bridge was originally slated for completion in 2006 and then 2010.

As the date has been pushed back, the price of the bridge has climbed, too.

When it was originally conceived nearly 20 years ago, the new eastern half of the bridge was going to cost about $1 billion. Now it's expected to cost more than $6 billion.

The causes for the delays and the rising price are as numerous as the tons of steel needed to finish the job. There's been the political fighting, bickering between government agencies, numerous studies, and general disagreement over the design.

In the beginning, officials spent years determining whether or not to even build a new span of roadway above the choppy bay waters or to reenforce the existing bridge to make it more earthquake proof.

Construction of the new bridge began in 2002. But since then, the California Department of Transportation has faced problems related to shoddy welding that caused costly delays.

Which means the old span will still be in use for many years to come. And inspectors say it's fine now. "The bridge has been inspected, and it's safer than it was when we closed it," according to transportation officials.

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