Richmond–San Rafael Bridge


May 18, 2021

Tall bridges and I tend to avoid each other. I made it across this one with a death grip on my steering wheel and shallow breathing. The Richmond–San Rafael Bridge (also officially named the John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge is the northernmost of the east–west crossings of the San Francisco Bay. Officially named after California State Senator John F. McCarthy, it bridges Interstate 580 from Richmond on the east to San Rafael on the west. It opened in 1956, replacing ferry service by the Richmond–San Rafael Ferry Company.


Early proposals

Proposals for a bridge were advanced in the 1920s, preceding the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1927, Roy O. Long of The Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, Incorporated, applied for a franchise to construct and operate a private toll bridge. The proposed 1927 Long bridge would have been a steel suspension bridge, carrying a 30-foot-wide roadway for a distance of 14,600 feet at an estimated construction cost of US$12,000,000 (equivalent to $176,600,000 in 2019). The bridge would afford a maximum vertical clearance of 135 feet with a 1,200-foot main span. Charles Derleth, Jr. was selected as the consulting engineer, after having served in that role for the recently completed Carquinez Bridge. The Long bridge would have spanned San Pablo Baybetween Point Orient (in Contra Costa County) to just below McNear's Point (in Marin County), and Long was granted the franchise in February 1928 by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. A competing proposed bridge also came out in 1927, from Charles Van Damme of the Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Company. The 1927 Van Damme bridge would have carried a 27-foot-wide roadway for a distance of 19,000 feet at an identical estimated construction cost of US$12,000,000 (equivalent to $176,600,000 in 2019). It would have spanned San Pablo Bay from Castro Point(Contra Costa County) to Point San Quentin (Marin County), approximately the same routing as the eventually completed 1956 bridge. Although the 1927 Long bridge had been granted a franchise in February 1928, Van Damme subsequently petitioned to reopen the case, since the ferry company owned the land at the proposed eastern terminus and therefore should have been favored in the franchise selection process. Also, since the ferry company's franchise rights were not set to expire until the 1950s, Long's 1927 bridge cost would have increased to reimburse losses to ferry revenues. Soon after winning the franchise rights, Long approached Van Damme with an offer to buy the Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Company for US$1,250,000 (equivalent to $18,600,000 in 2019).

Van Damme and Long later agreed in September 1928 to merge their interests for a combined bridge proposal between Point San Pablo (Contra Costa County) and McNear's Point (Marin County). The combined project, now headed by Oscar Klatt for the American Toll Bridge Company, received approval for the routing from then-Secretary of War Goodin May 1929, although vertical and horizontal clearances for the proposed bridge were not fully established at the time. In November 1929, vertical clearance had been increased to 160 feet to satisfy Navy requirements. The construction permit was issued in February 1930.

Klatt's 1929 bridge was dormant for nearly a decade following the issuance of a construction permit in 1930. An extension was filed in 1938 to allow construction to start as late as February 1942, and fresh plans for a bridge district to facilitate financing were announced in 1939. In 1947, interest was revived in bridging Marin and Contra Costa Counties.

A third bridge was proposed in late 1927 by the enigmatic T.A. Tomasini. Tomasini's 1927 bridge called for two lanes of automobile traffic straddling a central rail line from San Pedro Hill (Marin) to San Pablo station (Contra Costa), a distance of over 5 milR’s. In 1928, Tomasini presented a revised proposal for a bridge farther south than the other two bridges—spanning the water from Albany (in Alameda County) to Tiburon. The 1928 Tomasini Albany–Tiburon bridge was the longest of the three proposed bridges by a significant margin. The proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge would have been similar in concept to the 1967 San Mateo–Hayward Bridge, with a high-level western section approximately 7,700 feet long transitioning to a low-level eastern causeway. The western section featured two 1,000-foot-wide spans to cross the navigation channels, with the western navigation span having a minimum vertical clearance of 150 feet and the eastern navigation span having a minimum vertical clearance of 135 feet (41 m). The 1,000-foot-wide navigation channels for the proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge were opposed by shipping interests, who wanted the channels to be 1,500 feet wide instead. The cost of the longer spans required would have made the proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge impractical, and Tomasini argued that "any mariner who could not negotiate a bridge such as proposed should lose his license."

Tomasini's proposed 1928 San Francisco Bay crossings, shown in orange. Red bridges are those that were built, including the 1956 Richmond–San Rafael Bridge (1). 1937 Golden Gate Bridge (2), and 1936 San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (3) .

  1. Albany–Tiburon bridge

  2. Sausalito–Belvedere bridge

  3. San Francisco–Marin–Alameda tunnel & bridge

Tomasini would later add a bridge spanning Richardson Bay in March 1928 from Sausalito to Belvedere to his proposal. The additional Sausalito–Belvedere bridge would have been 7,300 feet long and 22 feet wide with a lift span to allow the passage of large vessels, at an estimated cost of US$750,000 (equivalent to $11,200,000 in 2019).

Meanwhile, in April 1928 Tomasini recruited the prominent Ralph Modjeski to serve as the consulting head engineer for the proposed Albany–Tiburon span, and Modjeski promptly complimented the plans that had been drawn up by Tomasini's chief engineer, Erle L. Cope. The design for a lift span in the proposed Sausalito–Belvedere bridge was changed to a bascule after public comments were received from a local shipbuilder. Tomasini received a permit for the Sausalito–Belvedere bridge from the War Department in December 1928. Tomasini had planned to commence construction of the Sausalito–Belvedere bridge in July 1930, but he was met with opposition from the Tiburon-Belvedere Chamber of Commerce, who felt the creation of a bridge would eliminate the promised San Francisco-Tiburon ferry service. In 1931, the Richardson Bay Redwood Bridge was opened, which was the largest structure in the world constructed of redwood. The Redwood Bridge carried the Redwood Highway (present-day US 101) and spanned the upper reach of Richardson Bay, eliminating some of the need for the proposed Sausalito–Belvedere bridge. The Redwood Bridge would be replaced by a concrete structure in the 1950s.

Tomasini continued to add to the project scope in July 1928 by proposing a bridge and tunnel to join San Francisco to the proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge. The tunnel would run roughly northeast from Bay Street and Grant Avenue, not far from present-day Pier 39, at a depth of 50 feet below low tide water level for 11,200 feet. At that point, the tunnel would surface northwest of Goat Island, and then transition to a bridge nearly 4 miles long with a minimum vertical clearance of 50 feet and two lift spans connecting to the proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge. The cost of the entire project was US$55,670,000(equivalent to $828,900,000 in 2019), split as US$20,000,000 (equivalent to $297,800,000 in 2019) for the Albany–Tiburon bridge, US$670,000 (equivalent to $10,000,000 in 2019) for the Sausalito–Belvedere bridge, and US$35,000,000(equivalent to $521,100,000 in 2019) for the San Francisco–Marin–Alameda tunnel and bridge. Tomasini organized each of the three proposed structures as independent projects, preferably to be built simultaneously, but in the event that one was not approved, it would not delay the construction of the other two. San Francisco's board of supervisors rejected Tomasini's San Francisco–Marin–Alameda tunnel and bridge in September 1928, although the board's action was non-binding. By February 1932, Tomasini's proposed Albany–Tiburon bridge had changed to a combination bridge—tunnel. The bridge portion was a low trestle approximately 19,800 feet long, extending westward from Point Fleming in Albany in Alameda County. The proposed tunnel would have been 17,200 feet long and ventilated by four towers, emerging at Bluff Point near Tiburon in Marin County. Total estimated cost for the two structures was now US$35,000,000 (equivalent to $655,900,000 in 2019) and despite opposition from the US Navy, who cited potential navigation hazards, the bridge—tunnel was approved by the War Department in July 1932. Although he had the permit to begin work, Tomasini filed numerous annual extensions to retain the rights through 1941, apparently due to a lack of funding to start work. Tomasini was still scrambling for funding in August 1941, seeking the issue of bonds worth US$20,000,000 (equivalent to $347,600,000 in 2019). Tomasini lost the rights to the crossing in October 1941, which was not the first time he was opposed by Earl Warren, who had questioned the validity of Tomasini's franchise as early as 1933. Still, Tomasini was doggedly trying to advance his plans as late as 1948.

Construction: 1953–1956 In 1949, the County of Marin and the City of Richmond commissioned a preliminary engineering report from Earl and Wright of San Francisco, which concluded that a bridge would be feasible. A follow-up 1950 study, conducted by the Division of San Francisco Bay Toll Crossings, was commissioned by Marin County and the City of Richmond using US$200,000( equivalent to $2,130,000 in 2019) in state funding. The 1950 report concluded the bridge could be built in accordance with the California Toll Bridge Authority Act. The preliminary design was approved on 1951-08-08 and California approved the preliminary report on 1951-11-27. The California Toll Bridge Authority authorized the issue of US$72,000,000 (equivalent to $693,200,000 in 2019) in bonds on 1952-11-07 and subsequently sold US$62,000,000 (equivalent to $592,500,000 in 2019) on 1953-02-26 to construct a single-deck bridge. The remaining US$10,000,000 (equivalent to $95,600,000 in 2019) was reserved for construction contingencies and to complete the lower deck of the bridge. The $62 million raised from bond sales was divided into three parts: US$50,000,000 (equivalent to $477,800,000 in 2019) for construction, US$10,000,000 (equivalent to $95,600,000 in 2019) to address interest obligations on the bonds during the construction period, and US$2,000,000(equivalent to $19,100,000 in 2019) in construction contingency. In 1954, Governor Knight declared the second deck should not be delayed in the public interest, and US$6,000,000 (equivalent to $57,300,000 in 2019) was loaned from the State School Land Fund in 1955 to complete the second deck. The bridge was finished $4 million under budget.

During the study period, an earth and rock-fill bridge with lift structures was considered, but the high-level bridge was chosen as the cost of a low bridge with navigation locks and lifting structures was prohibitive.

The majority of construction costs were tied up in two contracts that opened for bidding on 1952-12-19. The first contract, for the substructure, was awarded to the low bidder, the Ben C. Gerwick, Inc. — Peter Kiewit Sons' Co. Joint Venture for US$14,234,550 (equivalent to $136,000,000 in 2019). The second contract, for the superstructure, was awarded to the low bid of US$21,099,319(equivalent to $201,600,000 in 2019) by a joint venture between Peter Kiewit Sons' Co. — A. Soda & Son — Judson Pacific Murphy Corp. The substructure construction moved rapidly, with an estimated 45% of piers completed approximately a year after the contract was awarded.

At the time the bridge was completed, it was hailed as the world's second-longest bridge, behind the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the longest continuous steel bridge.

Historical notes

Originally a part of State Route 17, the bridge is now part of Interstate 580. Upon its opening, the Richmond–San Rafael bridge was the last bridge across San Francisco Bay to replace a previous ferry service, leaving the Benicia–Martinez Ferry across Carquinez Strait as the only remaining auto ferry in the Bay Area (it would be replaced by a bridge in 1962).

Description The bridge—including approaches—measures 5.5 miles long. At the time it was built, it was one of the world's longest bridges. The bridge spans two ship channels and has two separate main cantilever spans. Both main cantilever spans are raised to allow ship traffic to pass, and in between, there is a "dip" in the elevation of the center section, giving the bridge a vertical undulation or "roller coaster" appearance and also the nickname "roller coaster span". To save money, the cantilever main spans share identical symmetric designs, so the "uphill" grade on the approach required for the elevated span is duplicated on the other "downhill" side, resulting in a depressed center truss section. In addition, because the navigation channels are not parallel to each other, the bridge also does not follow a straight line. This appearance has also been referred to as a "bent coat hanger".

After it was completed, many were disappointed by the appearance of the bridge; Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous designer who was not an engineer, reportedly called for it to be destroyed due to its ugliness, and complained that it was "the most awful thing I've ever seen" during its construction in 1953. Contrariwise, the neighboring Golden Gate Bridge, and the western span of the Bay Bridge, had been considered engineering and historical marvels. However, the project's senior engineers were the same ones who had worked on the Bay Bridge,with their design reflecting lessons they had learned from doing so.

From west (Point San Quentin) to east (Castro Point), the bridge consists of:

  • A 2,845-foot trestle structuresupported by fifty-seven bents. The upper deck is 2,845 feet and the lower deck is slightly longer at 3,635 feet

  • 1,900 feet of girder spans, consisting of nineteen 100-foot girder spans

  • 4,125 feet of truss spans, divided into fourteen trusses each 292 feet long, on average.

  • The western 2,145-foot cantilever structure, with arms measuring 538 feet each flanking a central span of 1,070 feet. The western cantilever span is the main 1,070-foot-wide navigation channel and features a vertical clearance of 185 feet.

  • 2,955 feet of truss spans, consisting of ten spans each 292 feet long, on average.

  • The eastern 2,145-foot cantilever structure, with arms measuring 538 feet each flanking a central span of 1,070 feet. The eastern cantilever span is the secondary 1,070-foot-wide navigation channel and features a reduced vertical clearance of 135 feet.

  • 3,505 feet of truss spans, consisting of twelve spans each 292 feet long, on average.

  • 1,715 feet of 100-foot girder spans

Excluding approaches, the bridge structures comprise a total length of 21,335 feet on the upper deck and 22,125 feet on the lower deck. Despite the varying height of the bridge, roadway grades are limited to 3% or less. As completed, the bridge has two decks each capable of carrying three lanes of traffic. As of 2020, westbound traffic rides on the upper deck and is marked with two lanes of vehicle traffic, as well as a pedestrian/bicycle path separated from vehicles by a movable barrier. Eastbound traffic rides on the lower deck and features two lanes of vehicle traffic as well as a third lane that is activated during evening commute hours and serves as a shoulder when not in use. The extra lane features lights indicating that the lane is open or closed. The third lane has been used for various purposes other than traffic, such as carrying a water pipeline during a drought.

The bridge stands on 79 reinforced concrete piers supported on steel H-piles. Nine piers stand on land, eight are in cofferdams near the Contra Costa terminus, and the remaining 62 are bell-type piers with a flared base. The original deck was a 5.5-inch thick reinforced concrete slab, with a mortar wearing surface 0.5 inches thick. To facilitate maintenance, the bridge was designed with two 2.5 inches lines (carrying compressed air and potable water) extending from end to end. Each deck was also equipped with three overhead maintenance tracks.

Public transit service

Golden Gate Transit bus routes 40 and 580 provide public transportation across the bridge. Route 40 runs between the San Rafael Transit Center and the El Cerrito del Norte BART station. Golden Gate Transit Route 42, which provided service to Richmond BART/Amtrak station, was folded into Route 40 in December 2015. Improvements

Seismic retrofit

In the fall of 2001, the bridge commenced an extensive seismic retrofit program, similar to other bridges in the area. The retrofit was designed by a three-way joint venture between Gerwick/Sverdrup/DMJMunder a US$19,000,000 (equivalent to $31,900,000 in 2019) design contract awarded in 1995.The retrofit is intended to allow the two-tier bridge to withstand a 7.4 magnitude earthquake on the Hayward Fault and an 8.3 magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault. The foundation piers were strengthened by wrapping the lower section of structural steel in a concrete casing, installing new shear piles, and adding bracing to the structural steel towers. Isolation joints and bearings were also added to the main bridge structures (cantilever spans over the navigation channels) to strengthen the structure. The fifty-year-old bridge was showing its age and also needed age-related maintenance, which was performed in conjunction with the seismic upgrade work. There were reports of cars being damaged while traveling on the lower deck by fist-sized concrete chunks falling from the joints of upper deck slabs. A major part of the retrofit involved the long concrete causeway on the Marin side, which as part of the retrofit program, was nearly completely replaced. Because of the active use of the bridge, Caltrans designed the project to allow the bridge to remain open to traffic. For economy, schedule efficiency and traffic impact mitigation, much of the repair work was fabricated off site and shipped to the bridge by barge.

To reduce impacts to traffic the major work was performed at night. Caltrans kept two lanes of traffic moving in each direction during daylight hours, then reduced that flow to a single lane in each direction at night. Thus, one trestle was completely closed, and the other trestle had two-way traffic.

The concrete segments of the trestle were precast in Petaluma and barged to the site. At monthly intervals, tugs positioned barges with one or two 100-foot-long (30 m), 500-ton pre-cast concrete roadway segments, which a 900-ton barge-mounted crane lifted into place. Earlier, either two or four of the corroded, 50-foot concrete segments of the old roadway were removed by crane. Then, a pile driver moved into position and drove new piles. After the new concrete road segment was in place, steel plates were used to temporarily fill the gaps, and the roadway was ready for morning traffic. At times, construction backed up traffic to Highway 101 into central San Rafael.

The completion of this retrofit, on September 22, 2005 was celebrated as a success despite the many challenges, including the deaths of two workers. The retrofit was originally estimated by Caltrans engineers at US$329,000,000(equivalent to $504,900,000 in 2019), but Caltrans adjusted the estimate to US$393,272,000 (equivalent to $583,900,000 in 2019) in 2000 during the bidding process. While most of the resulting bids were close to US$545,000,000 (equivalent to $809,100,000 in 2019), the low bid came in at US$484,403,479 (equivalent to $719,200,000 in 2019) from the Tutor-Saliba/Koch/Tidewater Joint Venture. Caltrans revised their estimate to US$665,000,000 (equivalent to $960,200,000 in 2019) in May 2001 when more funds were appropriated for California's Toll Bridge Seismic Retrofit Program in Assembly Bill 1171. The cost was again adjusted during an August 2004 review by Caltrans, this time to US$914,000,000 (equivalent to $1,237,200,000 in 2019). The final cost of the retrofit, however, was $778 million, or $136 million below this August 2004 estimate.

Third lanes

The protected bike/pedestrian path on the upper deck of the bridge In both directions, the bridge is wide enough to accommodate three lanes of traffic. Currently the third lane on the lower deck is used as a right-hand shoulder or a "breakdown lane" and is marked along the bridge with the signs "Emergency Parking Only". The third lane on the upper deck is a separated bicycle and pedestrian path.

In 1977, Marin County was suffering one of its worst droughts in history. A temporary on-surface pipeline, six miles (10 km) long, was placed in the third lane. The pipe transferred 8,000,000 gallons of water a day from the East Bay Municipal Utility District's mains in Richmond to Marin's 170,000 residents. By 1978, the drought subsided and the pipeline was removed. The disused third lane was then restriped as a shoulder.

In 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the third lane was opened up as a normal lane to accommodate increased traffic after the Bay Bridge was shut down because of a failure of that span. Many commuters from San Francisco drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin and then across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge to go to Oakland (and vice versa). After the Bay Bridge was reopened, the third lane was again closed.

On February 11, 2015, the Bay Area Toll Authority approved a plan to install a protected bike and pedestrian path on the wide shoulder of the upper deck of the bridge. The path was expected to be complete in 2017, however it opened on November 16, 2019. As part of the same project, a third eastbound lane was added the previous year on the lower deck to be available for evening commutes.

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