OAKLAND -- Finally. After 16 years of political bellyaching, 11 years of construction and $6.4 billion in taxpayer money, the new Bay Bridge is set to open at dawn on the first day back to work after the Labor Day weekend.
Starting Wednesday night and continuing through the holiday, contractors will realign Interstate 80 with the new 2.2-mile bridge in Oakland and at Yerba Buena Island. The final touches are routine -- paving, barrier rail installation and lane striping.
But this last stretch has more moving parts than a Swiss watch, particularly for the motoring public forced to find alternate routes across the bay for five days.
Here are some of the most-asked questions and the answers:
Q When will the Bay Bridge be closed?
A The California Highway Patrol will begin rolling traffic breaks between 7 and 8 p.m. Wednesday on eastbound and westbound Interstate 80 on each end of the Bay Bridge in preparation for an 8 p.m. shutdown. To avoid an unexpected long detour and congestion, cross the bridge well ahead of 7 p.m.
In addition, 15 I-80 connector ramps to the bridge will be closed -- nine in San Francisco, six in Oakland -- so be prepared for street-level delays in these areas. The bridge and the connector ramps will remain closed until at least 5 a.m. Tuesday.
The work schedule contains what Caltrans calls "float," or extra time intended to absorb typical construction glitches. If the contractors finish the work early, the bridge could open early. But don't count on it, said Bay Bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon, because these things rarely go off without any problems.
Q What will happen during the closure?
A Contractors will simultaneously align both ends of the bridge with Interstate 80.
At Yerba Buena Island, the transition structure into the tunnel is complete, and the crews need only install traffic barriers, put down connecting pavement and stripe the new lanes.
On the Oakland side, contractors must finish the westbound lanes from the toll plaza to the new span. They will demolish a portion of the existing eastbound touchdown before constructing the new eastern lanes. They will also erect a temporary wooden trestle for the bike and pedestrian path.
Q Who will be the first regular commuter to drive across the new span?
A With a bit of luck, it could be you.
As soon as the bridge team says "Go!" Caltrans will begin taking down the orange barrier cones blocking the closed freeway ramps in San Francisco and Oakland. CHP units will escort vehicles lane-by-lane onto the new span until all five lanes are open, CHP spokesman Sam Morgan said.
If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you could be the first motorist, or at least among the first drivers, to cross the newly opened span.
But don't line up behind the barriers in anticipation of being first, warn bridge officials -- you'll earn a nasty ticket if you impede operations.
Q What are my travel alternatives during the closure?
A BART is running 24 hours a day during the shutdown. There are buses and ferries. And the other toll bridges will be open. Check 511.org or call 511 for details.
Q I need to go to Treasure Island or Yerba Buena Island. How do I get there?
A Island residents, employees and special event attendees may obtain a permit from the Treasure Island Development Authority, which will allow passage through the CHP checkpoint at Harrison and First streets in San Francisco. Call 415-274-0660 for more information.
Q What happened to the public celebration to mark the bridge's opening?
A The bridge walk and fireworks were canceled earlier this summer when repairs of broken bolts on the new bridge threw the timeline -- and fundraising -- out of whack.
By the time engineers figured out a temporary fix that allowed the weekend operation to move ahead, there was no time to resurrect it. Instead, there will be an invitation-only, VIP chain-cutting ceremony on Labor Day.
Q Why is the chain-cutting ceremony closed to the general public?
A Providing safe access to thousands of people who might attend a ceremony wasn't possible in the short time available, said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority.
Q Will the new bridge's bike and pedestrian path open on Sept. 3, too?
A Yes, the path is scheduled to open at noon.
Keep in mind, the path only goes partway until 2015. A portion of the old bridge must be demolished before the contractors can complete the Yerba Buena Island connection.
No dedicated parking exists near the trailheads in Emeryville and Oakland, so check out the path map at baybridgeinfo.org.
Q What will happen to the old bridge?
A It will be demolished. In fact, planning started months ago.
But don't expect to see a wrecking ball out there next week. It will take up to three years and $234 million to dismantle the 1936 steel cantilevered truss bridge piece by piece. Contractors must methodically take the bridge down in the precise opposite order it was erected or risk a catastrophic collapse, say engineers. Such a failure could injure or kill employees and dump toxic lead-based paint and other debris into the bay.
Contact Lisa Vorder- brueggen at 925-945-4773.