Bay Bridge Reopens After Troubled Makeover

San Francisco's Bay Bridge is open again, after being closed over the weekend to allow the last phase of a retrofitting project to finish up. While commuters are celebrating the bridge's return, the project was a lesson in cost overruns and delays.

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Commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area are taking their first drive across the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. The old span, which was built during the Depression, partially collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. This new stretch took 24 years to build and cost more than $6 billion.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the project started as a seismic retrofit and morphed into what's been called the Big Dig of the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The new bridge is just over two miles long, reaching from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island half way to San Francisco. It's the world's largest single tower, self-anchored suspension span. An hour before its long anticipated opening last night, hundreds of vehicles jammed onto on-ramps to be among the first to cross. Oaklander Joseph Duran was there.

JOSEPH DURAN: It's history. I mean, it's kind of something cool that I'll be able to tell my grandchildren.

GONZALES: Indeed, history will judge whether the new eastern span is an architectural marvel or a symbol of political paralysis. At first glance, it is a stunning sight. Leaving Oakland, there's a long viaduct with open and expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, as if drivers are floating in the air.

Bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon describes the signature tower design.

ANDREW GORDON: Drivers are just going to see this 525-foot gleaming white tower, the gleaming white cable. And then, as you drive under - since the tower is between the decks, yet the cables on the outside - they're going to be driving under this white canopy of steel cables and it's just an amazing thing to see.

GONZALES: And it comes with a hefty price tag. Initially the cost retrofitting the old bridge was $250 million. A new bridge was estimated a little more than one billion dollars, but that estimate ballooned and, when all is said and done, the price tag is $6.4 billion.

Karen Frick, assistant director of the UC Transportation Center, says the cost grew because planners opened the process up and started asking some big questions.

KAREN FRICK: When you provide an opportunity for conversation, there's naturally friction. And that's what happened, very publicly, and also influenced cost in a huge way.

GONZALES: Should the new bridge be an aesthetic wonder and an engineering marvel? After debate, the answer was yes. Would the new span have a pedestrian and bike path? Yes, it does. Would it have a rail line? Nope, that didn't happen.

Meanwhile, the project was plagued with controversies like the poor quality of Chinese steel, the discovery of bad welds and, more recently, the breaking of massive bolts in the seismic safety system. All of this chewed up time and you know what they say about time and money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

GONZALES: At the ceremonial opening yesterday afternoon, there was a general acknowledgment that the project was expensive and had taken too long to accomplish. When Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom used a torch to cut the symbolic chain, the cheer seemed part jubilation and part plain relief.

(APPLAUSE)

GONZALES: Either way, CalTrans is claiming victory.

BRIAN MARONEY: You know what? The bottom-line is the public got the beautiful bridge they wanted.

GONZALES: Brian Maroney is a CalTrans chief engineer. He says the project was always a race against the inevitable moment when the next devastating earthquake strikes.

MARONEY: We're competing against time. You don't know when the next earthquake will happen. We got people off the old Bay Bridge. And now, as a community, everybody involved won.

GONZALES: And everyone is paying for it. In 1997, it cost $1 to cross the Bay Bridge. Today, it costs $6.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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