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The thrill of the $6.4B drive

Bay Bridge lives up to its billing as an icon

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The thrill of the $6.4B drive

The Bay Bridge as it looked an hour after it opened Monday night.

JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin/


POSTED September 4, 2013 12:22 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO – “Do you want a receipt?” the toll-taker asked.

“Yes please,” I said.

It was a simple exchange. Something you wouldn’t exactly expect to have any sort of extra meaning or relevance.

 But 39 minutes after the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened for the regular people of the world, she handed me $16 in change and a slip of paper proving that I was part of the first wave of people to venture across and flashed a smile that let me know she approved of my excitement.

And so I drove. Slowly. I don’t think that I broke 25 miles per hour from the toll plaza to my exit on Treasure Island, where I hoped to get a few pictures with those who came out for the occasion.

“That’s history I just put into my pocket,” said one young girl after snapping dozens of pictures with her Samsung phone – tucking it back into the pocket of her skinny jeans. “That’s Bay Area history.”

She isn’t wrong. The opening of the bridge, which came hours ahead of the announced Tuesday morning timeframe, was 23 years in the making. When a section of the upper deck collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989, the integrity of the cantilever section that was ultimately put out of commission over the weekend was questioned.

Could it withstand another major earthquake?

More than two decades and $6.4 billion later, concerns about another collapse are no more – the new, yet-to-be-named span is expected to be able to withstand a 1,500 year rocker and last 150 years with proper maintenance.

The Golden State Warriors have already adopted the bridge logo as part of their uniforms. It will undoubtedly give the Golden Gate a run for its money when it comes to attracting the camera lenses of Bay Area natives that recognize and understand the generational importance of such an event. To say nothing of the fact of that it’s just pretty damn cool to see.

I’m left wondering what the great San Francisco columnist Herb Caen would have to say about the matter. The same earthquake that led to the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway that he railed against constantly inadvertently led to the discussion about the replacement of the cantilever section.

He did, after all, dub it the “car-strangled spanner,”

He’d have criticized the cost overruns and the broken bolts, the S-Curve and the tumble barriers. Maybe he would have criticized the style. I doubt he would have criticized the style. The Zakim Bridge in Boston, part of the wonderfully punctual and fiscally responsible “Big Dig” project, uses a pair of towers to hold up a span that’s nearly the same length. I think Herb would have appreciated the fact that San Francisco could have done it in just one.

Tamika James appreciated the single post construction, and said she was astonished when she passed beneath the cables for the first time – never fully realizing the way that everything was held up until actually seeing it with her own eyes.

“You just don’t see it when you drive along side. It’s not the same as when you’re under it.”

No Tamika, it’s not. The web-like cables are mesmerizing and are undoubtedly the reason that traffic crawled across the bridge for the first hour that it was open. Horns honked.

Cameras snapped photos. People, myself included, filmed the drive.

But it wasn’t until I nearly made it the Treasure Island turnoff that I realized that the hulking mass that was the old bridge was sitting just to my left – cold and dark in stark contrast to the bright, white and almost sterile appearance of the new span.

The part that did connect to the dreaded “S-Curve” was sheared completely off. The approach from what was the toll plaza had been realigned. The lights on the lower deck were still on.

Janet Phan said that it’s going to be odd driving home without having an entire bridge deck above her – something that always gave her a claustrophobic feeling – and getting her car doused in water every time that it rains as water floods in from expansion joints won’t be something that she misses.

But Monday night was about celebration. It was about a rebirth. It was about being one of the first to cross something that will be a source of Northern California pride for decades to come, regardless of how much it may have cost.

Do I want my receipt? Yes.

I think that might be something worth holding on to. I think that Herb would agree.

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