Thursday, May 31, 2007

New Date At Strait

New Date At Strait
Bridge Set To Open In A Few Months
By Lisa Vorderbrueggen/Contra Costa Times

Construction crews continue applying the final touches to the new Benicia-Martinez Bridge on Wednesday. (Contra Costa Times photos/Karl Mondon)

At long last, there's good news to report about the new Benicia-Martinez bridge, a span that has taken seven years longer to build and cost four times more than Caltrans initially estimated.

The sleek and graceful concrete segmental bridge - the largest of its kind in California and perhaps the nation - will open in late August or early September, four months earlier than the completion date the state and Bay Area Toll Authority have advertised for several years.

A few extra months might not sound like much, but the prospect of an opening date marks a monumental milestone for a bridge that has suffered one setback after another.

First, the span hit a major snag when the noise and vibration from pile-driving operations killed fish in the Carquinez Strait. The work stopped while engineers designed an air bubble curtain to protect aquatic life.

Contractors then hit unexpectedly soft rock at the base of the pilings used to support the bridge's piers. To anchor the pilings deep beneath the riverbed, the contractor inserted steel sleeves into the pilings and filled them with concrete and rebar, a costly and time-consuming task.

Later, as workers began pouring the first of 344, 16-foot segments that complete the span, the chemistry of the lightweight concrete produced too much heat. To cool the concrete down, the contractor pumped water from the river into a series of pipes to each segment until they cured properly.

All told, these delays and others factors drove the cost of the bridge and related contracts to $1.2 billion, up from Caltrans' 1995 estimate of $266 million.

The Bay Area Toll Authority covered the extra costs through a sophisticated re-financing plan that took advantage of lower interest rates and the combined buying power of toll proceeds from all state-owned Bay Area bridges.

"All the bridges helped pay for the Benicia bridge," said Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman Randy Rentschler. "This is regionalism at work. Contra Costa and Solano will enjoy a tremendous benefit that they could never have afforded to pay for themselves."

What matters now, says Mo Pazooki, the bridge's chief engineer, is that engineering triumphed over adversity and it's almost time to celebrate.

The span is more than 95 percent finished and with work so close to completion, Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority have hired a consultant to help plan the grand opening celebration.

"I always feel good when a project is finished," Pazooki said, standing on the span's shiny new deck Wednesday.

What's left on the to-do list?

Workers are grinding the span's road surface to level it and carve grooves to reduce the potential for skidding, pulling electrical and other cables through the hollow center of the span, and installing signs, telephone call boxes and streetlights.

They are also wrapping up the sandblasting of the span's concrete exterior surfaces, a chiefly aesthetic operation.

Testing of the electronic toll collection system called FasTrak and interior work are under way at the new toll plaza. The plaza will offer motorists the Bay Area's first and only open toll lanes, which allow cars equipped with electronic FasTrak devices to zip through the booth at the speed limit instead of slowing to 25 mph. To accommodate the open toll lanes, the state spent $1 million to retrofit the plaza before it ever saw a single commuter.

"It's the best of all the toll plazas," said Caltrans toll captain Bruce Yingling. "The security is 100 times better. We have better access to the booths. It's even the little stuff, like storage space."

John Mantimeo applies some final touches to a sign post Wednesday, on the new Benicia- Martinez Bridge in Benicia.

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