Caltrans contractors late Friday had nearly completed the task of sliding out a 300-foot section of the Bay Bridge, overcoming difficulties while cutting loose the huge bridge piece that had delayed the complex procedure by four hours.
Applause broke out just after 6 p.m. as the section of the bridge began to move slowly from its moorings — inch by inch — marking a long-awaited major milestone in the project to replace the bridge section during a four-day closure of the major artery.
A worker standing hundreds of feet above the Bay, buffeted by winds, edged the section forward with his shoulder. Then the exposed inner sides of the piece slowly became visible and the movement noticeable.
"It is genuinely exciting to see this," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which administers bridge toll revenues.
"It looks like it is moving slowly, but after two years it's happening fast," he said as he watched the work from a suspended platform facing the bridge with a crowd of about 50 onlookers.
By 6:45 p.m., the section jutted out into midair as workers carefully guided it along rails lubricated by Dove soap toward red towers that would lower the enormous block to the ground for removal.
"This is an enormously complex task. We knew that going in," said Goodwin, who had arrived at 9 a.m. to watch the difficult work that had to be accomplished step by careful step.
"We wanted some action because we've been waiting all day," he added. "The delay was inconsequential. You can't hurry it."
"It's like following a suspense story," said MTC spokeswoman Karin Betts, who has been on site since 9 p.m. Thursday. "But you get this reward."
By 9 p.m., the bridge section was close to being completely rolled out.
Once the old bridge section is out, crews can proceed to begin rolling in a replacement section that weighs 3,600 tons. The roll-in is expected to begin sometime today.
The project had encountered delays earlier in the afternoon, as crews grappled with bearings on the east side of the bridge.
"The old bridge is proving to be a little bit stubborn," Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said about four hours after the section was supposed to have been moved.
Crews first hit a snag earlier Friday afternoon when they encountered problems removing some pins, preventing the structure from being rolled out. The bridge is scheduled to open 5 a.m. Tuesday.
The giant skids rolling out the bridge section have Teflon padding and are lubricated with dish soap to make for easier sliding of the huge 3,300-ton load, Ney said. The soap acts the same way as when people put it on their finger to slide off a stuck ring.
Crews have tested the powerful jacks that will edge the bridge section sideways. The whole process is expected to take five to eight hours. The project got off to a good start when the bridge closure Thursday night took just 21 minutes, faster than the previous bridge closure in 2007. That helped push the work two hours ahead of schedule by sunrise.
Ney said winds were light, making it easier for the construction crews to work 150 feet up above Yerba Buena Island.
East Bay highways experienced some congestion Friday afternoon because of the bridge closure. The California Highway Patrol reported delays on Interstate 580 and increased traffic on other bridges. BART and ferry ridership were up, and freeways saw relatively smooth traffic on the first morning of the scheduled four-day bridge closure.
Caltrans contractors are replacing the bridge section as part of a project to create a bridge detour that must be built to erect the new Bay Bridge East Span, which is scheduled to open in 2013. The old East Span was deemed not strong enough when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a section of the upper deck onto the lower deck.
The bridge was closed for a month, reopened and strengthened.