Our bridges are a symbol of regional pride—millions of locals and tourists flock to the Golden Gate Bridge each year and the Bay Bridge’s suspension portion has become every bit a part of San Francisco’s iconic skyline as the Transamerica Pyramid. And when an older bridge is torn down to make way for a new one—like in 2007, when the original 1927 Carquinez Bridge was dismantled after the Alfred Zampa suspension bridge was built in 2003—it’s celebrated as a reflection of human progress.

The Bay Area is about to undergo another such change this year, when the new portion of the Bay Bridge, connecting Oakland to Treasure Island and the suspension section of the bridge, is scheduled to be officially opened to the public. Once completed, the new bridge will feature the first bike/pedestrian causeway from Oakland to San Francisco, accessible near the Ikea in Emeryville alongside Interstate 80. The new bridge will also have arguably more artistic architecture, as well as being designed to be more seismically sound than the current bridge, says Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman John Goodwin.

“We currently have the westbound lanes on top, eastbound lanes below—we’re going to have them side-by-side,” Goodwin says. “If you travel back from San Francisco now you’re in this long, narrow box. On the new bridge, folks will come out of the tunnel on a separate deck and it will really open up the views of Oakland and Berkeley. It will be a dramatic difference.”

Westbound travelers, meanwhile, will have a clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge as they swing towards the city, says Goodwin. Additionally, the toll plaza is being refurbished in a way that’s designed to coordinate with the Port of Oakland to create a “white steel” aesthetic for that part of the bay. And many Bay Area residents may have noticed the light display on the suspension part of the bridge, a privately funded endeavor, which went up back in March and is scheduled to run daily, from sundown till about 2 a.m., until the exhibit’s closure in 2015.

But the most significant changes to the bridge are the ones that generally go unnoticed by day-to-day commuters. Specifically, the new bridge will be equipped with a series of shock absorption mechanisms, all designed to mitigate the impacts of an earthquake. It should be self-evident to Californians why this is necessary—as Goodwin put it, “The bridge is smack between two major faults; you got you’re Hayward Fault to the east, and the San Andreas Fault to the west. Each is capable of producing very large earthquakes, as we saw in 1906.”

These new mechanisms include batter piles, which are driven in at an angle to provide more brace, as well as deliberately designing specific, non-integral, easily replaceable sections of steel to be weaker than the rest of the bridge, so if a particularly strong earthquake strikes those sections will bear the brunt of the force, without compromising the structure of the bridge. Since the sections are easy to replace, the bridge should be back in business fairly quickly after earthquakes, too, and it will be able to be used to transport emergency vehicles in the meantime, says Goodwin. He added that, put together, these mechanisms will make the new Bay Bridge one of the most seismically advanced bridges in the world.

“It’s built to withstand what we call a ‘1,500-year earthquake’—the maximum possible ground shaking in a 1,500 year period,” Goodwin says. “There are a lot of different elements at work. It will be not only an iconic piece of architecture, but an iconic engineering achievement as well.”

But the future of Bay Area bridges is changing in other ways too, including some that will be noticeable day-to-day. The people of East and North Bay Area dwellings know how bad San Francisco traffic can be. Well, there’s good news to deliver on that front: electronic tolls are coming to the Bay Area, starting with the Golden Gate Bridge, which is the only major bridge in the area that’s not under MTA control. But that doesn’t mean MTA isn’t paying attention—they’re watching Golden Gate’s progress in that realm, with plans to implement an electronic tolling system for all of our bridges, possibly starting with Antioch or one of the smaller bridges in the area, says Goodwin. (If that’s the case, the Bay Bridge will likely be last to have e-tolls, since it’s the area’s largest). “The toll industry is moving in an all-electronic direction, and we’re going to move there too,” Goodwin says.

These new electronic systems rely heavily on FasTrak, our area’s pay-by-transponder system, but for non-FasTrak users, the e-tolls will simply record cars’ information, and then use DMV listings to send folks a monthly bill for the tolls they used. This will allow for much smoother toll-traffic than most area residents are accustomed to.

“We won’t do anything until we have many months of data from the Golden Gate Bridge on how it’s working,” Goodwin says. “We really want to learn from them, so we can do all the right things and as few wrong things as we possibly can.”

In the meantime, Bay Bridge designers are considering the possibility that the bridge won’t be opened by their originally scheduled date, 5 a.m. September 3rd, after Labor Day. Their plan was to open the bridge to traffic on September 3rd  and to have a two-day celebration on the 1st and 2nd, but builders are currently dealing with a problem regarding some anchoring rods on the eastern end of the bridge and may have to push back the date. But should that happen, it probably won’t postpone the opening for too long, Goodwin says.

In the meantime, it might be worth it for Bay Area residents to dig up stories about how folks in this area “conquered” our various bays and straights, and to reflect on the history of Bay Area bridges as a new change comes to the landscape.

Contacts: John Goodwin 510-817-5862 and Andrew Gordon 510-286-7165 Agordon@MTC.CA.gov


Nate Gartrell 2Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.