Bridge closure pays off for BARTBy Erik N. Nelson
When Caltrans officials decided last fall that they were going to close down the Bay Bridge and install the first new seismically safer piece of its eastern span over Labor Day weekend, engineers were asked to draw up multiple contingency plans.
If the project couldn't be done in three days, if there was a problem that couldn't be solved in minutes or hours, hundreds of thousands of Bay Area commuters were likely to be stuck in the worst kind of gridlock. There had to be a contingency for everything, said Bart Ney, Caltrans Bay Bridge project spokesman.
"In the end, we didn't need any of them," Ney said.
The bridge reopened at 6 p.m. Monday - 11 hours ahead of schedule.
Just about everything about the job went according to plan, even if there were a few rough spots.
But the worst of those scary parts was a demolition job that took 52 of the 43 to 53 hours estimate for cutting, hammering and removing the old Yerba Buena Island Viaduct.
Caltrans spent nearly $1 million on public outreach that started in April, blaring its message to avoid driving Labor Day weekend from every rooftop, movie theater and other public venue the agency could find.
"No matter how much you do, you never know whether you're going to reach everybody" said Ney. "Even if you do, you don't know whether they're going to listen."
But listen they did. Ney said he knew the message was sinking in because "I had a lot of people telling me they were sick of hearing it."
The evidence of that was all over Bay Area freeways on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. Traffic wasn't particularly light, but what backups did occur could have happened any weekend.
More evidence that the message met its mark arrived Tuesday, after Bay Area Rapid Transit District released its count of Labor Day weekend BART riders.
More people rode BART this weekend than at any time in the system's history as Bay Area residents sought alternatives to driving over the closed Bay Bridge this Labor Day weekend.
On Friday, after the bridge closed at 8:07 p.m., 389,400 riders flocked to BART, making it the all-time one-day record. The previous record was set on June 13, when a Police concert and Giants game swelled ridership to 381,200.
Saturday saw 278,600 riders, up from the previous Saturday record of 229,600, and 208,700 Sunday riders eclipsed the Sunday record of 195,700.
"I think we're pretty much stunned that we broke the record as much as we did," said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.
The weekend's success may have also gone a long way toward changing attitudes about a bridge project that was supposed to fix a seismic vulnerability that was discovered in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The project, delayed by engineering, political, alignment and aesthetic disputes, isn't expected to be finished until 2013.
"I guess you could say we're making up for lost time," said Mary King, who chaired a committee that shepherded the bridge's hotly contested design process.
"Caltrans and its contractors are on a pretty good run, taking on big projects and getting them done," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is paying for most of the bridge project. "They're basically beating people's expectations."
Last year, Caltrans teamed up with MTC's Bay Bridge Toll Authority and decided to close the bridge for the demolition of a large section of the bridge's western approach.
That calculated risk to close just the bridge's eastbound deck paid off, and shortly afterward the two agencies, along with the California Transportation Commission, decided to risk closing the entire bridge for the viaduct replacement.
Caltrans Director Will Kempton said that when the pluses and minuses of the replacement job were weighed, there was one factor that tipped the scale toward closing the bridge.
That was the contractor, C.C. Myers, whose namesake company had rebuilt the MacArthur Maze connector ramp that collapsed in a gasoline tanker fire April 29.
While Myers hadn't become the hero of the maze by the time the decision to close the bridge was made, he had already more than a dozen successful emergency jobs under his belt, including the reconstruction of Interstate 5 through Los Angeles, damaged in the Northridge earthquake.
Copyright ©2007 San Jose Mercury News. Published 09/04/2007.