BAY BRIDGE TOLL PLAZA -- The last car -- a yellow Model A Ford driven by Bob Faber of Richmond -- left the Bay Bridge Toll plaza bound for San Francisco just after 8 p.m. Wednesday, signaling the official closure of the Bay Bridge until the new and improved version reopens early Tuesday.
In a historic, and smoothly orchestrated operation, the entire bridge closed for the fourth and final time, allowing contractors to complete the final linkage of Interstate 80 with the new span before commuters return from the long holiday weekend.
Like other "carmageddon" predictions made in advance of key highway closures, the two weeks' worth of changeable freeway message sign warnings, news stories, radio plugs and all other forms of dire word-of-mouth relays appeared to pay off as bridge traffic was significantly lighter than usual all day, and the anticipated last-minute clogs did not appear leading up to the shutdown.
A few motorists hollered and others honked as they drove through the toll booth in the final hour and minutes before the bridge closed, although it's impossible to say why.
One Richmond man showed up at the Toll Plaza parking lot late Wednesday wearing a "Free Leonard" shirt. He said he had no beef with the new bridge but wanted to advertise his support for freeing jailed Native American Leonard Peltier.
"CHP closes freeways every day and while this was a large operation, everything went as planned," said CHP spokesman Daniel Hill. "We saw no unexpected events."
If all goes as planned this weekend, the seismically safer $6.4 billion self-anchored suspension span will open by 5 a.m. Tuesday at the latest, and possibly the night before if the work is done early. The official chain-cutting ceremony, scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday instead of Tuesday, won't be an impediment.
The new eastern span replaces a 77-year-old cantilevered truss bridge that engineers predict will suffer a catastrophic failure when the next big earthquake strikes the Bay Area. The Loma Prieta temblor in 1989 shook loose a piece of the upper deck, leading to the death of a motorist.
Although a handful of drivers pulled over in an attempt to be the last car to cross the old bridge, that honor went to Faber, a member of the Model A Ford Club of America.
He said he's owned his 1930 Model A for about five years after accepting the broken-down car with a rebuilt engine as payment for a job his window company did.
Unfortunately, none of the other members of the club could join him, he said. Many of them are on vacation, while others didn't want to spend the night exploring other pathways home. So Faber paid his toll and took his last ride across the old span."When I told everybody that there's no way back (to the East Bay), that iced it," he said. "I don't know how I'm going to get back home. I hope they let me back on ... or we might have to go see San Rafael."
The California Highway Patrol began rolling traffic breaks just before 8 p.m., ratcheting down traffic speeds in the minutes leading up to the full closure. Once Faber left the Toll Plaza and began his slow putt-putt across the span, Caltrans and the CHP did a last sweep. By 8:26 the bridge was clear and contractors Flatiron West, MCM and OC Jones quickly began moving onto the bridge the heavy equipment staged alongside Interstate 80 near the Toll Plaza in recent days.
The contractors will work 24-7 during the five-day closure. At the peak of construction as many as 400 workers will be on the site, 2,000 truckloads of asphalt weighing a total of 14,500 tons will be delivered from a Pleasanton plant, and 1.2 million square feet of pavement surface will be ground down for the drainage system and to prepare it for new asphalt.
During the closure drivers using other bridges and routes can expect longer drive times and more crowded freeways. For those who opt to take the long way around via the other toll bridges, experts advise adding an hour or more to the drive time between San Francisco and the East Bay.
BART, AC Transit and the ferries are offering extra service this weekend, although BART ridership appeared light on Wednesday as people possibly took time off, said BART spokesman Jim Allison.
As early as Monday evening but no later than 5 a.m. Tuesday, Caltrans and CHP will open the closed ramps and gradually escort traffic onto the bridge until all five lanes are full. The bike and pedestrian path will open by noon.