Bay Bridge delights drivers with early opening

Work went so smoothly on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge that it opened to traffic earlier than expected Monday night, delighting the first drivers to cross the new $6.4 billion structure.

Rumors swirled all weekend that the bridge would be open to traffic sooner that its Tuesday morning planned opening. But it wasn’t until Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty announced near the end of a series of speeches by local dignitaries Monday afternoon that the bridge would be opening “tonight.”

Dougherty declined to give a precise time, only saying that the bridge would open “well ahead of 5 a.m.”

When the new eastern span opened to traffic at 10:16 p.m. the first drivers to cross the new section of bridge honked and cheered. Traffic was heavy but moved smoothly during at least the first hour after the opening.

Dougherty had confirmed the earlier opening near the end of a long string of speeches during a dedication ceremony attended by local political leaders and dignitaries, including Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other politicians and transportation officials.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was the last of the speakers, and was on hand to “cut” a ceremonial chain for the new bridge with a welding torch.

The California Highway Patrol had warned that officers would ticket drivers who stop on the side of Interstate 80 waiting for the bridge to open. Officers also planned to ticket drivers who stopped to take pictures on the new bridge.

The bridge — after being closed since Wednesday night — was previously scheduled to open again Tuesday at 5 a.m.

Crews had worked on a series of projects to get the bridge ready for traffic, including grading, striping, installing barrier rails, and putting up signs.

Caltrans crews also took advantage of the rare closure to take care of some cleanup and maintenance work — such as replacing the tunnel lights with LEDs and lubricating the expansion joints — work that usually takes months to complete when the 77-year-old bridge is open.

The closure of the span caused massive traffic jams during the Thursday and Friday commutes, as well as traffic delays throughout the weekend.

Many commuters with no other way to get across The Bay turned to BART. The agency reported on Thursday it carried 475,015 passengers — its third highest daily ridership day.  On Friday, 457,018 passengers rode BART trains — BART’s fourth busiest day.