Twenty-four years after the Loma Prieta earthquake exposed the vulnerabilities of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a new span opened Monday night, with hundreds of drivers jockeying to be among the first to cross the spectacular new span.
The first cars rolled through the toll plaza around 10:15 p.m. Monday. The first "recognized" driver, guided into the number one lane by Caltrans, was Christen Gray, of San Leandro. As she tried to explain her excitement over being among the first over the new span, her passenger, Anthony Thomas, blurted out, "It's shiny!" summing up the giddiness of so many to travel over the new span that has been so long coming.
A few hours earlier, motorcyclist B. Diddy of the East Bay Dragons waited near the West Grand Avenue onramp in Oakland, hoping to be among the first to cross the bridge.
"I'm here tonight to cross the new Bay Bridge, to be part of history," he said while waiting with other motorists at the blocked entrance at West Grand Avenue in Oakland.
With all major construction necessary to realign Interstate 80 with the new Bay Bridge complete, the director of Caltrans announced during a chain cutting ceremony Monday afternoon that the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge would open Monday night, hours ahead of the bridge's scheduled opening at 5 a.m. Tuesday.
The surprise announcement came during the ceremony honoring the many planners, designers, workers and others who had finally completed the bridge after 24 years of planning and construction.
"We are opening this bridge that is built to outlast every one of us," Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said before making the announcement. "The old bridge has been part of life in the Bay Area for 77 years and it has served us well, but it is time for an upgrade.
"We wil open this bridge tonight well ahead of the 5 a.m. target," Dougherty said, noting that his own advisers had warned him against making a public pronouncement "... and I couldn't be happier."
Contractors were busy wrapping up the last bit of striping, barrier rail installation, signage work and other last-minute tasks as the bridge team prepared for a private chain-cutting ceremony and processional expected to last several hours.
The historical milestone is coming much later and at a much higher cost than anyone predicted.
Back in 1998 when Bay Area officials chose the unique self-anchored span design, engineers estimated construction would take four years and cost $1.4 billion; instead, it took 11 years and cost $6.4 billion.
The new bridge isn't quite finished, though. Contractors say the permanent retrofit of the large anchor bolts embedded in seismic stabilizers that snapped in March won't be completed until mid-December.
Engineers recently devised a temporary fix that will allow the bridge to open to motorists before the bolt repairs are finished.
Caltrans provided a two or three-hour opening range Monday evening because CHP officials didn't want motorists queuing up at the ramp closure barriers or idling on the freeway shoulders in the hopes of being the first driver across the span.
But try as they might, drivers did find ways to pull over near onramps in downtown San Francisco, where some waited a couple of hours, some less.
Art Gurrea of Oakland said he heard the bridge was opening so he stayed in the city and had dinner after he got off work at Horizon Bus Co. As the clock ticked past 9:30, then 10 p.m, he started to wonder if he'd be waiting until 5 a.m.
"It's like watching a pot boil, or waiting for the phone to ring," he joked. "But I'll wait, it's better than driving all the way around the San Mateo Bridge."
And just like that, at 10:35, the cones were lifted and the cars that had been parked fired up their engines and headed east on to the bridge.
CHP spokesman Daniel Hill warned drivers that stopping on the bridge, even using the new shoulders, to take a picture or otherwise enjoy the view would earn drivers a nasty ticket and a moving violation point on their record., CHP spokesman Daniel Hill said. Wait for the bike and pedestrian path to open or take those snaps from a safe location on Treasure Island, he said.
In the four days since the Bay Bridge was closed to traffic for the switch-over, contractors MCM and Flatiron West connected the new span to Interstate 80 at Yerba Buena Island, forever bypassing the hated S-curve detour on the 1936 bridge.
On the Oakland side, they demolished a 1,000-foot section of the upper eastbound deck and installed in its place a temporary wooden pedestrian and bicycle trestle.
The ramp will allow people to use the new span's pathway while contractors finish tearing out the old bridge deck and build the permanent connection. The path will open Tuesday at noon and remain open from dawn to dusk seven days a week.
Other work this weekend included grinding away 2 to 6 inches of pavement on the travel lanes around the toll plaza, installing a new stormwater drainage system, repaving, striping and installing barriers in both the east and westbound directions.
Caltrans also took advantage of the rare closure and checked off months' worth of maintenance chores on the west span such as steam cleaning the inside of Yerba Buena Island tunnel, replacing the tunnel lights with LEDS to match the new eastern span and lubricating the expansion joints.
But for today days, the focus is on opening the much seismically safer new bridge to motorists by the time they return to work Tuesday after the long holiday.
Loath to open the historic bridge without marking the event in some fashion, however, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee -- three state and regional agencies overseeing the construction -- opted for an invitation-only event.
The restricted attendance has frustrated numerous Caltrans and regional agency employees and contractors who helped design and build the bridge but could not secure tickets for themselves and their families.
Instead, many held private celebrations for their employees, including American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises, the primary contractor for the self-anchored suspension segment of the new span. ABF even ran sightseeing trolleys across the bridge Sunday for their guests.
Those guaranteed a seat at Monday's event and a chance to ride across the span in the ceremonial processional following the 3 p.m. speeches and chain-cutting include the scheduled speakers, of course.
More than one speaker at the opening ceremony Monday made reference to the lengthy design discussion and construction period.
"Just think! We could have had a freeway on stilts," said Steve Kinsey of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "But the Bay Area held out for a world-class bridge."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, noted that she hadn't even been elected to the state Assembly in 1989, when the Loma Prieta quake caused one section of the eastern span to collapse and focused new attention on the span's seismic deficiencies.
"I have eagerly awaited this day along with all of you!" Lee added.
"We don't know when that next quake will happen," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. "Now we can drive across that bridge with the assurance that we are not risking our lives."
California Transportation Commissioner Jim Ghielmetti was pointed in his criticism of the length and cost of the bridge project.
"It shouldn't have taken 24 years to build a new bridge," Ghielmetti said. "We must do a better job and learn from our mistakes."
Metropolitan Transportation Commission Chairwoman and Orinda Mayor Amy Worth noted the large number of female construction workers who helped build the bridge, reflecting a huge shift in the workforce since the original bridge was erected.
"Construction isn't an old boys' club anymore," Worth said. "Thank you to the women working on this bridge who forged a path for our daughters."
Removed from the old span surreptitiously earlier this week, the shy Bay Bridge troll made a rare appearance, posing for photos before being moved to an "undisclosed location.".
The Pacific Boys Choir of Oakland sang the national anthem, and the Oakland Military Institute's color guard presented the colors.
California's poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera read his "Bay Bridge Inauguration Poem: For all the bridge dreamers, bridge builders and bridge crossers."
The committee also paid tribute to the pioneering women who helped build the bridge as tradeswomen, engineers or in other roles, taking their lead from the Bay Area News Group's "Sisters of the Span" story, photos and video interviews published earlier this year.
The ceremony included a video tribute to designers, planners, workers and others who were involved in the process but died before the bridge was completed.
Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state and did not attend, but lieutenant governor. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom attended the ceremony, shortly after receiving a crash-course in wielding an acetylene torch to prepare for the chain-cutting ceremony.
With a burst of sparks and a few nervous smiles from the dignitaries standing closest to the flame, Newsom cut the ceremonial chain at the toll plaza around 5:30 p.m.
Other speakers included Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger, American Bridge/Fluor Joint Enterprises President and CEO Michael Flowers and state Building and Construction Trades Council of California President Robbie Hunter.
Christening the bridge on Labor Day is the perfect choice, said Hunter when asked for a sneak preview of his comments.
"We will be standing in the shadow of two of the most historic bridges in the nation, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both built almost 80 years ago," said 30-year iron worker Hunter. "We will also be standing with the workers who built those bridges and recognizing the people from all the trades who worked in all kinds of weather conditions day after day."
With Brown out of state, the actual chain-cutting duty falls to Newsom.
A sharp dresser known for his fastidious grooming, Newsom is scheduled for a quick lesson before the ceremony on how to operate an acetylene welding torch.
But if the torch produces too many sparks for Newsom's comfort, iron workers will be standing at the ready, sources say.
Despite the hullabaloo over the opening, several years of work, tasks both big and small remains after the bridge opens to traffic in addition to the bolt repairs -- paint touch-up, final aesthetic lighting, permanent bike and pedestrian path installation in Oakland and punching the bike and pedestrian path all the way to Yerba Buena Island after the old bridge is demolished. There will be no pedestrian or bicycle access to the island until the path is completed in 2015.
San Francisco will also construct permanent ramps from the new span onto Yerba Buena Island within two years and replace the very short temporary connector.
No additional toll hikes are needed to pay for the new bridge or these other improvements, however.
The Bay Area Toll Authority, Caltrans and the Legislature in 2005 plugged the cost overruns with a mix of state gas tax dollars and a $1 toll increase that went into effect in 2007.
Combined with earlier toll increases, motorists are paying roughly 80 percent of the cost of new span through tolls.
Staff writer Matthew Artz and Daniel M. Jimenez contributed to this story.
Follow Lisa Vorderbrueggen on Twitter at twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.