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New $6.4 billion Bay Bridge opens to traffic

SAN FRANCISCO – The new, $6.4 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been opened to traffic after years of delays and cost overruns, carrying its first drivers across the bay late Monday night just hours before the beginning of the work week.

The reopening came after the California Highway Patrol conducted a final security check and toll takers resumed their positions following a five-day closure as crews completed striping, railing and other final details on the new gleaming white span.

Cars began lining up hours earlier in an attempt to be among the first on the new span, and CHP officers led a line of drivers across at about 10:15 p.m., some seven hours before the 5 a.m. Tuesday reopening that was estimated before the closure.

At a modest inaugural ceremony, the new, self-anchored suspension bridge with its looming, single white tower was praised as a dramatic safety upgrade over its predecessor and a beautiful example of public art.

“I hope this is more than just connecting two land masses,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “I hope that the progress that’s being represented at this moment is for a generation to dream big dreams and to do big things.”

Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, cut a chain with a blow torch to mark the opening after leading those gathered around the bridge’s toll plaza in a countdown to the reopening.

There was no public celebration with tens of thousands of pedestrians and fireworks as originally planned. Instead, after years of delays and cost overruns, the opening of one of the state’s most expensive public works projects was marked with a relatively low-key event that did not even include the governor.

The new span replaces a structure that was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It is designed to withstand the strongest earthquake estimated by seismologists to occur at the site over a 1,500-year period.

“Despite the journey’s length, it has been completed before the arrival of our next big earthquake,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “And thank goodness for that.”

Heminger was among numerous officials who spoke at the event, which included a poem about the bridge by California’s poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera.

“(This project) has at times inspired me, challenged me, frustrated me and today, after seeing the final product, it impresses me with its beauty, its grace and its strength,” said Brian Kelly, who heads the state’s Business, Transportation & Housing Agency.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who was closely involved in planning the bridge when he was mayor of Oakland, was out of town and unable to attend the ceremony, said his spokesman, Evan Westrup.

The entire bridge closed Wednesday night so crews could do final work, and they were still striping, putting up signs and putting down roadway markers Monday, said bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon. Some barrier railing also needed to be installed.

The new section of bridge has been under construction for almost a decade and follows years of political bickering, engineering challenges and cost overruns.

James Ghielmetti, a member of the California Transportation Commission, said at Monday’s ceremony that the bridge should not have taken so long to go up.

“California must do a better job going forward on all of our public works projects,” he said.

In March, more than two dozen rods used to anchor the roadway to important earthquake safety structures cracked after they were tightened. The discovery threatened to delay the bridge’s opening by months.

The bridge will open with a temporary fix for the broken rods while the permanent repair, expected to be completed in December, is being installed.

Transportation officials approved the temporary fix last month and voted to open the bridge as originally planned around the Labor Day weekend.

But Gordon said Monday that there was not enough time for a public celebration.

Plans for such a celebration originally called for a bridge walk with more than 100,000 people, fireworks, a half marathon and a concert.

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