SAN FRANCISCO -- What's going on with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge? Has the mythical good-luck troll that's supposed to live under the bridge left the area?
It all began 20 years ago when a chunk of the lower deck fell during the Loma Prieta earthquake. The new east span now being built is scheduled to open in 2013, several years later than planned - at nearly double the cost - to $8.6 billion from $4.6 billion.
Now, to add insult to injury, bridge authorities want to raise tolls. And residents like Loetta Papetti, who signed an on-line petition, Stop Continuous Bay Area Bridge Toll Increases, says people can't afford the increase. "It's a hidden tax," she says.
James Sexton, a resident of Vallejo, commutes daily to work sometimes crossing two bridges a day. He says he can't afford to be paying tolls instead of carpooling for free.
"The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is taking much too long to construct," Sexton says, "and it's costing Bay Area citizens in overruns."
The Bay Bridge is known as the workhorse among the area's seven bridges because regional mobility and commerce depend on it. On average 270,000 vehicles cross the 8.4 mile bridge every day - more than one-third of all the traffic on all California state-owned bridges combined. There's no argument about the need to make the bridge seismically safe. It's the "how" that gets people riled up.
Until recently disruption was kept to a minimum during construction. Then a series of temporary fixes, closures, and accidents started driving commuters nuts.
For starters, the bridge was shut down over the three-day Labor Day weekend to install a half-mile, temporary detour so construction could begin on the final 1.2 mile, single-tower section of the new bridge.
A 3,600-ton double-tiered deck the length of a football field had to be moved into place just east of Treasure Island to create the detour. http://tinyurl.com/ye3hkvk. This new temporary section created an "S-curve," replacing what had been a straight shot into the Yerba Buena tunnel.
The intricate deck replacement went swimmingly but a routine inspection revealed a problem on another part of the bridge: one of the steel connectors in the latticework - an "eyebar" - had a six-inch crack at one end. Engineers couldn't agree but several theorized the break was the result of new or altered stresses caused by construction. A temporary fix allowed the bridge to re-open as scheduled.
At the time Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said making that unplanned repair so quickly took "an incredible effort... while most people are out enjoying barbecues."
But the band-aid didn't hold. On Oct. 27, due most likely to high winds, the eyebar broke completely. Metal and cables crashed to the bridge deck below - miraculously without causing major damage or injuries. The bridge was closed again - this time for six days - as Caltrans crews and contractors made a more permanent fix and did multiple safety inspections.
On Nov. 9, just as crossing the Bay got back to normal, a speeding Safeway truck failed to negotiate the new S-curve and fell 200 feet over the side of the bridge killing the driver. Luck, like so much else associated recently with the bridge, just wouldn't hold.
Caught in a growing public relations crisis, Caltrans installed more warning signs and flashing lights for vehicles approaching the S-curve. The California Highway Patrol began issuing speeding tickets to slow speeding drivers entering the S-curve. As California Highway Patrol officer Herman Quon says, "We plan to be out there as long as it takes to get people to realize they have to slow down."
The broken eyebar is still being fixed. Crews are finalizing repairs at night with overnight closures of three lanes on the upper deck and one lane on the lower deck through early January. Up-to-date information on closures can be found at http://baybridgeinfo.org/closures-detour
This is not be the ideal time to raise the cost for crossing the Bay. But that's what the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) wants to do. Operating under the aegis of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) BATA proposes increasing tolls and eliminating free carpool lanes. The base toll for automobiles would increase to $5 from $4. Congestion pricing would be introduced for trucks and trailers, which now pay from $6 to $13.50, depending on the number of axles. The increased tolls will raise $750 million for earthquake retrofitting of the Dumbarton and Antioch bridges, cover increasing bridge expenses, and pay construction debt, according to MTC.
For trucks the two-axle toll would be higher ($6) during weekday peak travel times and lower ($4) during non-peak periods, and would match other Bay Area bridges at $5 on weekends.
MTC says time-based pricing for trucks will minimize morning delays on the Bay Bridge by 15-to-30 percent because of reduced truck traffic.
A discounted toll of $2.50 for carpools with three or more passengers would become effective July 1, 2010. Carpools which pay no toll now and get their own dedicated lane through the toll plaza would have to make payments like everyone else. MTC hopes these and other commuters will make more use of FasTrak, an electronic toll-paying transponder, and thereby minimize back-ups at the toll booths.
Berkeley resident Katie Peterson lines up in the mornings by the north Berkeley BART station to join a casual carpool for her commute to San Francisco. Should free carpooling come to an end she says her big issue will be the additional travel time. "Riding on BART from north Berkeley takes about the same time as the casual carpool. But the carpool is the better option for me because it's free." Peterson estimates her commute will take an extra 15 minutes if there's no free carpool lane. Then there's the question of how the carpool toll gets paid. "Will all the carpoolers be expected to chip in $0.75 per ride?"
Public transit could be the beneficiary of all these changes. Recent Bay Bridge closures did substantially increase ridership on BART and AC Transit's trans-bay buses. But then commuters had no real alternative. When gas prices spike the number of commuters who opt for mass transit does increase by a few percentage points. Whether a $1 toll increase is substantial enough to change deeply entrenched transportation habits remains to be seen.
The Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) holds a public hearing about the proposed toll increases Jan. 13. The full BATA Commission is scheduled to vote on the plan Jan. 27.
Meanwhile you might want to dig up that old troll doll from your bottom drawer. Keep it beside you in the car to give the Bay Bridge some new good luck.