Angelika Twenty-four years ago, on October 17th, 1989, to be precise, a 6.9 earthquake rattled San Francisco, and caused severe damage to the Bay Bridge, which connects the cities San Francisco and Oakland. A part of the upper deck slammed down on the lower part, killing one driver while crossing the bridge. Shortly after the quake, it became evident that the bridge wouldn't withstand another blow and would need to be replaced urgently. And this was the beginning of the struggle for the new bridge: Discussed were various building cost and design issues, like should it be a suspension bridge or not, one or two decks again, or with foot and bicycle paths? What made matters worse was that the two cities, San Francisco and Oakland, had to agree on all issues. Both cities were run by big-headed mayors, Willie Brown in San Francisco, and Jerry Brown, now governor of California, then mayor of Oakland. It took forever to build, but finally, after 24 years of construction drama, on September 3rd, 2013, the new bridge was opened to the public.
Only the eastern span is new, which connects Oakland and Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the Bay. The western span, leading drivers over the waters again all the way to San Francisco, remained unchanged. The original bridge span dates back to the 1930ies, and to make sure it will withstand the next earthquake, it was retrofitted with new steel beams by the civil engineers in charge. The construction work on the new eastern span began in January 2002, which runs alongside the old bridge. In 2009 the drama continued: During routine checks, Engineers found cracks in one of the steel beams (Rundbrief 11/2009), which lead to heated discussions about whether the steel parts for the new span, which were manufactured in China, where a cheap product "Made in China". Shortly before the grand opening, however, it was discovered that the steel bolts for earthquake-proofing the bridge were showing cracks as well. Ironically, those weren't "Made in China", but "Made in USA". This lead to another round of discussions about whether the bridge could even be reopened with the defective bolts or if it was prudent to wait and replace them.
The consensus was, after all, that it would be more dangerous to drive over the old bridge during an earth quake, than over the new bridge with its defective bolts, even though repairing them would take months. As you can see, the project wasn't exactly inspiring confidence. What I found quite sad personally, was that because of this glitch, the grand opening celebrations, which had been planned for months in advance, were canceled entirely.
What was still missing at this point was connecting the old western span with the new eastern span. To accomplish this, the entire bridge was closed over the long Labor Day weekend for a total of five days. I found it quite miraculous that this shutdown didn't wreak total havoc on Bay Area traffic. After all, about 240,000 cars are crossing the bridge on a regular day.
Starting Wednesday, August 28th, 8 p.m., no vehicle was allowed on the bridge anymore, in either direction. Since I had been working in the East Bay on this legendary Wednesday, I crossed the old bridge around 6 p.m. for the last time. I have to admit, I got somewhat sentimental at the time. While I was zooming over the bridge, heavy construction vehicles were waiting at the curb. After five days of closure, in the early morning hours of Tuesday, the wait was over and police let the first driver onto the eastern span. Later that day, I also crossed, and the new bridge pillars were sparkling in the sun.
But the kicker is that now pedestriants and bicyclists have access to the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. There's a new foot and bike path. Naturally, Michael and I had to check it out last weekend. The hike is quite strenuous, since the path stretches about 2 miles before it even reaches the bridge. All the way to the midpoint and back, we hiked more than eight miles that day. The path starts right across from the Ikea store in Emeryville, and leads through rather bleak industrial areas and over highway bridges onto the Bay Bridge. The parking lot guard apparently doesn't want you to park on Ikea premises if you intend to hike, but I claim that it's a killer opportunity for Ikea, and as a matter fact, after we were done hiking, we went into the store and bought some things, following the Ikea mantra: Well, we're here already, why not ... For what it's worth, there's another trail entrance at Maritime Street.
On the hike, we enjoyed great views on the Bay, San Francisco and the old bridge, which is about to be disassembled over the coming years. We were surprised to see so many people walking the trail: Parents pushing strollers, kids on scooters, bicycle riders, runners and walkers. At this time, the trail ends at Yerba Buena Island. That's why the locals nick-named it "the pier". The old bridge needs to go away before the foot and bike path can connect to Yerba Buena Island. But even then, the trail won't go all the way to San Francisco, but there's already a lobby for that.
The trail exists mainly because of the accomplishments of a dedicated individual: Alex Zuckermann of the East Bay Bike Coalition kept pushing for a bike-accessible Bay Bridge in political meetings for a large part of his life. Sadly, he died in 2007 at age 86 and didn't get to ride the new trail on his bike. But the foot and bike path is named after him and I bet he'd be thrilled to see how popular it is already.