Bridging the Gap

Speaking of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (as I was last week) maybe you’ve heard that it’s joined the Bay Area’s roster of troublesome infrastructure?

The problems aren’t as severe as the Bay Bridge’s issues, nor as expensive to resolve as BART’s shortcomings, but they’re still an interesting little tale of terror.

Okay, maybe “terror” is excessive. Trauma, though…that works.

The story, or at least the current phase of it, started earlier this month–but let me give you some background first. The bridge is double-decked. The top deck is for westbound traffic (Richmond to San Rafael). There are two lanes and a wide shoulder, part of which is currently being converted into a bike and pedestrian path. The lower, eastbound deck, also has two lanes and a wide shoulder. As I explained in that earlier post, the shoulder is used as a third lane during the evening commute.

The bridge opened in 1956 and has been updated several times since, including undergoing a seismic retrofit in the early 2000s. Of particular note, the majority of the bridge’s joints–795 of 856–were rebuilt during the retrofit. The remaining 61 have been in place since the bridge opened.

Which brings us to February 7 of this year. At approximately 10:30, the California Highway Patrol received a report that chunks of concrete falling onto the lower deck. Specifically, someone told them a rock had fallen onto the hood of their car, denting it severely. Inspection showed that concrete was falling from around one of the expansion joints on the upper deck. Yes, one of the Original Sixty-One. At 11:20, give or take a few minutes, Caltrans closed the bridge in both directions.

Fortunately, the morning rush hour was mostly over by the time the bridge closed. And, for the curious, yes, I had driven over the bridge that morning, headed for San Rafael. And no, my car did not knock loose the chunk of concrete that was the cause of the CHP being called in. I’d passed that part of the bridge about fifteen minutes before the caller’s hood was crushed. Not guilty.

Without the bridge, there really isn’t a good way to get from San Rafael to the East Bay. You can use the Bay Bridge, but that means going through San Francisco, which is a nightmare of a commute even in the best of circumstances. Or you can go around to the north, via Novato, Vallejo, and Crockett, which involves a long stretch on the one-lane-in-each-direction Highway 37.

The bridge remained closed until shortly before 3:00. By then, of course, the evening commute was totally snarled. Opening one lane in either direction didn’t help much, and when more concrete fell, those lanes were closed again. (Again, I lucked out: I left work at three and made it across just before the 3:45 re-closure.)

After that, the upper deck stayed closed. A single lane on the lower deck opened around 4:30, but by then any commute anywhere in the Bay Area was a multi-hour affair.

Caltrans got a temporary patch in place–metal plates on the top and bottom of the upper deck–and reopened the bridge around 8:30. Amazingly, the congestion had all cleared by the following morning, and my commute to work was no worse than usual, aside from the jolt to my car’s suspension going over the temporary patch.

The upshot is that the Original Sixty-One are now being replaced. At least in theory. It’s been too wet for actual repairs to be carried out, which means the planned completion date of March 5 is totally out the window. The repairs and the delays to the repairs also means the bike lane is going to be delayed by at least two months.

To be fair, the rain is hardly Caltrans’ fault. And, as far as I can tell, the delay isn’t going to raise the cost of the repairs (about $10,000,000 for the 31 joints on the upper deck; the 30 on the lower deck were actually planned for replacement later this year in a separate rehabilitation project.)

But I doubt there are many Bay Area commuters looking forward to weeks or months of overnight lane closures.

And, even though there’s no evidence of problems at any of the other commuter bridges–and yes, that include the Golden Gate–I doubt I’m the only person who has second thoughts about driving on the Carquinez, San Mateo, or Dumbarton Bridges.

I mean, really, how much bridge luck can I reasonably expect to have?