OAKLAND -- After more ups and downs than a world class rollercoaster, California's most expensive public works project in history opened Monday night at 10:15 and capped an afternoon of lengthy celebratory opening speeches, chain-cutting and a VIP procession on the Bay Bridge.

The historic opening marks the end of 11 years of construction -- more than twice as long as anticipated -- and costs that soared fivefold to $6.4 billion. It also comes after years of political battles and one controversy after another -- false allegations about bad welds, questions about concrete tests and then the worst of the lot, the high-strength steel bolts that snapped in March and threatened to jettison the timetable for months or weeks.

Christen Grey and Anthony Thomas, of San Leandro, were the first "recognized' drivers to enter toll lane Number 1. As Grey tried to explain the couple's excitement, Thomas blurted out, "It's shiny!"

Grey said, "We're very honored to be one of the first folks to cross the bridge," before noting that Thomas would be "texting and tweeting" while she was focused on driving. They paid with a $10 bill.

The 2.2-mile replacement span is also the last project in the state's toll bridge seismic safety upgrade program. The state replaced the 1927 Carquinez Bridge and finished seismic retrofits on the Dumbarton, Antioch, western half of the Bay Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael.


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As word trickled out that the new span would open hours before originally announced, cars and motorcycles began lining up around 5:30 p.m. at the West Grand Avenue entrance to the bridge, growing to about 15 cars and 10 motorcycles by 8:30 p.m.

Rich Gibbon of Oakland and a member of motorcycle club Mad Dog MC-Oakland said he waited at the Grand Avenue entrance for two hours.

"They start scurrying around like something is about to happen and they whip out the coffee," he said.

Gibbon said a man named Hap Jones had been the first motorcyclist to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and he wants to be one of the first over the new Bay Bridge.

"If you come here on a fast bike, you should be able to get to the front (of the line)," he said.

Gabe Ets-Hokin, an Oakland resident, said he was waiting because his grandmother had walked across the Golden Gate Bridge when it first opened.

"I've lived my whole life here. I didn't want to be like 'I'm going to go to bed early and miss this historic event.'"

Surj Gish, waiting with his wife, Angelica Rubalcaba, said he was excited as a motorcyclist because the new span will be open air from San Francisco to Oakland.

"From what I can see, that wide openness will be really cool," he said.

Speaking about the private chain-cutting ceremony held earlier Monday, he said, "It would have been cooler to have a bunch of regular people walking across. The idea that it was invite-only was kind of offensive."

The hundreds of smiling transportation officials, engineers, contractors and family members that gathered Monday afternoon in the muggy and hot but beautifully refurbished transportation museum near the toll plaza might object to the suggestion they weren't "regular" people.

After more than a decade of sweat and lost sleep, they were ready to fete each other and the new span.

One by one, they praised the new bridge's superior seismic safety and its graceful signature white tower and claimed bragging rights as home to the world's largest self-anchored suspension span.

"It's a great day," said Amy Worth, Metropolitan Transportation Commission chairwoman and Orinda mayor during her speech. "Some people will look at this bridge and see a road. Others will see art. Others will see science. I will forever look at the bridge and see how people combined the road, art and science and made them soar."

Out in the audience, "Just think, we could have had a freeway on stilts," said her commission colleague and Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey. "Instead, the Bay Area held out for a world-class bridge. History will thank us."

Fog covers the parts of the San Francisco Bay Area as streak of lights from motor vehicles cross the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge six hours later it
Fog covers the parts of the San Francisco Bay Area as streak of lights from motor vehicles cross the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge six hours later it was finally opened to the public seen from the Berkeley hills in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) ( RAY CHAVEZ )

Among the many people singled out for their work on the bridge during the speeches, only Caltrans bridge engineer Brian Maroney earned a standing ovation. Maroney has worked on the Bay Bridge since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook loose a piece of the old bridge's upper deck and sent Caltrans a serious seismic wake-up call.

What the bridge team also had Monday was a long list of people who wanted to be a part of history.

Event organizers had to lengthen the chain used for the cutting ceremony to 80 feet just to accommodate the 43 elected officials, contractors, consultants and others who wanted to hold it.

Flanked by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wielded the welding torch -- iron workers schooled him on its operation and stood behind him on the ready -- and cut the chain to huge cheers and without setting himself or anyone else ablaze.

The dignitaries then piled into vintage automobiles and spanking new Teslas -- a mix of the old and the new -- and rolled across the bridge parade style behind a motorcycle escort from San Francisco and Oakland police and the California Highway Patrol.

Recently removed from the old 1936 bridge and polished, the normally shy Bay Bridge troll -- placed by ironworkers after the Loma Prieta earthquake -- made a surprise public appearance during the festivities and even posed for photos with its delighted fans. The new bridge reportedly already has its own troll.

Strong hints of an early opening came first from California Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly, who told the audience earlier, "Tonight, we will reward the Bay Area for its patience."

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty followed with a more direct declaration: "We will open the bridge tonight!"

Worried about zealous motorists lining up behind the barriers at the 15 closed onramps to the bridge in Oakland and San Francisco, Caltrans and the CHP refused all afternoon and into the evening to say precisely when the span would open.

Using the shoulders for nonemergencies will earn you a nasty ticket and a moving violation point on your record, CHP spokesman Daniel Hill reminded drivers.

He also urged motorists to resist the temptation to pull over on the span's new shoulders -- the old span had no shoulders -- to take pictures or enjoy the view.

Wait until the bike and pedestrian path opens or take those snaps from a safe location on Treasure Island, he said.

Staff writer Daniel Jimenez contributed to this report. Follow Lisa Vorderbrueggen on Twitter at twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.