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75th Anniversary: Bay Bridge, Then and Now

The original quick but dangerous construction contrasts with the current labored replacement effort

Seventy-five years ago Saturday, the Bay Bridge opened with great fanfare.

"With darkness last night, the mighty span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, that had been silver tracery in the gathering dusk, flamed like an incredible jewel," trumpeted the Nov. 13, 1936 San Francisco Examiner.

"San Francisco and the East Bay are 10-minute neighbors; a broad highway of steel and concrete has shrunk the wide waters that held them apart; the fantastic dream of seventy-five years is a reality," the newspaper reported.

This weekend's celebrations of the bridge, which was built quickly and under budget but with many worker deaths, coincide with the current labored but safe effort to replace its eastern span. Here is a comparison of the two construction projects:

  Bay Bridge New eastern span
Date opened 1936 2013 (projected)
Length 8.4 miles from Oakland to San Francisco, including approaches and tunnel
2.2 miles from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island
Built to carry
Automobiles and trains
Automobiles and bicycles
Reason for construction
The bridge created the first direct road link between the San Francisco Peninsula and the East Bay, where the Port of Oakland was growing in economic importance, as cars became increasingly popular.
The bridge was to be seismically retrofitted after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The retrofit of the western span is already complete, but local leaders decided to replace the industrial-looking eastern span with a striking landmark.
Type of bridge
The western span was built as an elegant suspension bridge, the eastern span as a rudimentary truss bridge.
Caltrans settled on an amibitious self-anchored suspension bridge design, meaning cables will wrap around in an enormous loop instead of being anchored into the earth at each end. That decision led to severe construction delays and cost overruns.
Construction period 1933 to 1936
2002 to 2014 (projected)
Construction deaths 28
Initial budget $83 million ($1.4 billion in today's dollars) $1.5 billion, forecast in 1998 ($2.1 billion in today's dollars)
Final construction costs
$77 million ($1.3 billion in today's dollars) $6.4 billion (projected)
Earthquake resilience One motorist was killed after cantilever section fell from the top deck of the eastern span during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Caltrans won't say the maximum magnitude earthquake the span could withstand, but says it is built to resist the strongest earthquake expected in a 1,500-year period. A prominent engineer has questioned that claim.
Toll  $0.65 ($10.60 in today's dollars)
$2.50 for carpoolers, $4 to $6 for others, depending on the time

Watch a campy 1930s documentary, financed by United States Steel, about the initial Bay Bridge construction project:

Sources: Caltrans (baybridgeinfo.org), Bay Area Toll Authority (San Francisco Bay Area Toll Bridge Seismic Retrofit and Regional Measure 1 Programs, 2011 Third Quarter Project Progress and Financial Update), Daniel Pollak, California State Library (Timeline of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Seismic Retrofit Effort), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' CPI Inflation Calculator.

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