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Bay Bridge construction reaches milestone

February 11, 2004 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
   By Lisa Vorderbrueggen

SAN FRANCISCO - Six months into the most complex freeway reconstruction in Caltrans' history, physical evidence of the enormity of the task rises into stark view.

An assortment of concrete columns in varying sizes and stages of construction pop up on an impossibly narrow wedge of land flanked by high-rise buildings and Interstate 80. In some places, the new structures rest within inches of an office or apartment.

"It's like building a bridge in a bottle," said Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss. "We don't have much elbow room."

The work represents the first milestone in a massive undertaking to demolish and rebuild to modern earthquake standards a mile of 68-year-old double-deck freeway while it continues to carry 280,000 vehicles a day over the heart of San Francisco.

It's one of the busiest stretches of freeway in the Bay Area and a major artery between the East Bay, downtown San Francisco and the airport.

If this sounds like a magician's hat trick, watch closely: It's a shell game, only with traffic.

The state and its contractor, Tudor-Saliba Corp. of Sylmar., will first build temporary lanes and ramps at five interchanges between the Bay Bridge entrance and Fifth Street.

Traffic will shift onto the temporary structures during demolition and reconstruction of the old freeway.

Motorists will return to the newly built road while the contractor either removes or converts the temporary lanes into permanent roadways and ramps.

The seemingly mismatched columns under construction -- which sit atop pilings drilled 70 feet into the ground along Interstate 80 near Fremont Street will eventually support temporary and permanent lanes, or both, explained Caltrans senior engineer Alec Melkonians.

"We needed to build all the different types and sizes of columns we will need because we don't want to have to come back in here later and tear out new construction," Melkonians said.

The traffic change-overs won't happen all at once.

Melkonians and his Caltrans' colleagues have choreographed an elaborately staged construction schedule designed chiefly to stay out of the weekday commute. The five to six years it will take to do the work reflects the extra time it will take under the nights and weekends limitation.

For example, Caltrans will not close the Harrison Street off-ramp until the new Fremont Street off-ramp opens next spring. During the three-year closure of Harrison Street, the Fremont ramp will provide three instead of two lanes.

All lanes of Interstate 80 will remain open for weekday commuters although the lanes may not be in the same place from one day to the next.

But weekend motorists beware: Caltrans plans up to 18 weekend closures of the First, Essex and Sterling ramps in August through October of 2005 and 2006.

The final replacement piece in 2006, and the most painful for motorists, rests where the freeway meets the bridge. Caltrans must close ramps and I-80 lanes to complete the work.

"We'll be taking five lanes of traffic down to two lanes, so it will be a major hit," said project engineer Ken Terpstra. "But it's a very tight fit in there and we couldn't figure out a way around it."

Expect delays. Watch for detours. Better yet, take public transit.

The state plans to buy up to $2 million in added BART and MUNI service to help folks use public transit during the closures. And shutdowns will not occur during the city's three busiest events -- Gay Pride, Bay To Breakers and Carnaval -- or the Christmas holidays.

To date, motorists have suffered only one weekend of delay associated with this project.

Caltrans shut down the Fremont Street ramps this month while the contractor demolished a portion of the Transbay Terminal bus loop.

Crews needed the room to work on the first piece of the rebuilt artery, the Fremont Street off-ramp.

When Caltrans and Tudor-Saliba finish, the Bay Bridge approach will nearly match the pre-construction configuration. The project adds no new lanes.

But the lanes are wider and include shoulders, which provide emergency vehicle access and allow drivers with flat tires a place to pull over.

The new structure features a shorter double-decked section, however, and unlike the old freeway, a set of columns supports each deck as an earthquake safety measure.


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