Bay Bridge Review

I drove across the new Bay Bridge yesterday. In both directions, even.

I survived (well, duh: how would I be writing this if I hadn’t?). So did the bridge. Amazing.

It’s not without its quirks. That’s probably a good thing in the long run. Quirks add uniqueness, and now that the Bay Area has proven that a self-anchored suspension span can be built in this size, others will undoubtedly be built. If the Bay Bridge is going to remain unique long enough to justify the price tag, it’s going to need some quirks. “We just built an SAS bridge 50% longer than yours!” “Oh yeah? Well, does it have re-purposed disco lights for traffic metering?” Other quirks: the traffic chaos at the toll plaza continues to make safely navigating through the Maze look easy. The 50 mph speed limit feels like it’s much slower than it should be, given the long, straight roadbed.

Quirks aside, the bridge largely meets the aesthetic goals that were set by the assorted politicians who meddled in the design. It certainly draws the eye, and once the old span is dismantled (a three-year process!), it will dominate the landscape from most viewpoints. It fails a little when driving east: coming out of the Yerba Buena Island tunnel, you don’t really get quite the same visual impact from the suspension cables as you do approaching them from the other direction. They’re just suddenly there, rather than growing to surround you.

The lighting system is a huge design victory. The light poles are visually distinctive, and feature low-energy LED bulbs that are carefully-aimed to avoid ever shining into drivers’ eyes. According to plan, the bulbs should only need replacing every 10 to 15 years, which is great in terms of cost and power usage. I wonder, though, how easy it will be to replace them without ruining the precise orientation that keeps the light even and motorists un-blinded. That’s a quibble, and I’m sure we’ll find out how it works out long before 2023, as some of the bulbs will inevitably not reach the 10 year design goal.

That speed limit is going to be a continuing issue. Not at rush hour, perhaps, but at other times, drivers are going to regularly exceed it by a significant margin. I saw quite a few cars doing an estimated 65 or 70 yesterday, and I’d be willing to bet that will be “business as usual”. Maybe that’s a design feature. Since the new span has a shoulder, it should be possible for the CHP to pull speeders over and issue tickets. Could be a nice little supplement for somebody’s budget — as soon as the various powers-that-be settle the question of how the funds will be allocated. Or maybe they’ll install speed bumps and turn the bridge into the world’s longest roller coaster ride.

Bottom line: Until its seismic safety is demonstrated by something more than the 2.9 magnitude quakes it’s weathered so far, the public will continue to be dubious about the bolts, the saddle, and the shim. But the new span is beautiful and much more pleasant to drive across than the old one. Here’s hoping the engineers are right and that the new bridge lasts — and not just because it’s got a huge price tag to justify!

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