It was 5:50 p.m. when I got the call from my source, whom I’ll identify only as General “I shall return” MacArthur.
“Unofficially — not for publication — I recommend that you be at the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza no later than 7:45.”
With a new sense of urgency, something not engendered by mere deadlines and editors hoping beyond hope to spend time with their families, I finished my story about how, after a gasoline tanker conflagration April 29 claimed
Photo of Christie Constructors ironworkers by Thinh Vo.
one of the Bay Area’s busiest freeway ramps, it would be opening Friday morning in astoundingly good time.
I didn’t know what awaited me at the toll plaza, but I thought at first it would be politicians and contractors making speeches about what a success the maze rebuild project was. Whatever it was, I had to get there from our new home near Oakland Airport, so I gave myself 25 minutes.
No sweat. I made it to the MacArthur Maze by 7:35 p.m.
But there was a slight problem. Approaching from I-880, I ended up on the wrong side of a 16 toll lanes. I’m used to coming from downtown Oakland on I-580.
So there I was, trying not to break any laws, looking for that one break that might have gotten me into the toll plaza’s parking lot.
But there were too many orange barrier thingys, and I was out $4 and on my way to Treasure Island.
I looked at the traffic coming from the lower deck. I’m gonna miss this, I thought.
But I exited on the island, made some deft maneuvers with my Honda Civic hatchback and was quickly heading back to Oakland.
But the traffic was moving, so I thought, hmmm. Maybe Caltrans is gonna open this baby a day early, once again shocking people with quickness that the High-Speed Rail Authority can only write op-eds about.
Then I was sure. The traffic stopped. It stayed stopped. A man walked by my car to the edge of the bridge and took a picture of the Bay. I called ace photographer Ray Chavez, but he was at the maze construction site, not the toll plaza. I felt bad for sending him to the wrong place, but worse for missing the big moment without so much as a spokesman on the phone to tell me what was going on.
So I got out of my car like so many other drivers. I postulated to some of them that the melted eastbound I-80-to-I-580 ramp was being reopened, and sought their opinions. It may sound odd, but the holy grail of transportation reporters is getting comment from ordinary, random motorists on a freeway or a bridge. Most of the time, it’s not as easy as our editors think.
One guy from Berkeley parked next to the left side of the deck said, “It’s my turn to make dinner, so that’s not going to happen.” Nice quote, but Just David wouldn’t give up his last name.
Then I moved to one of the inside lanes and found Dar Sefidi, a San Francisco real estate agent on his way home to Hercules.
“Wrong time,” he said of the traffic stoppage. “Right after the commute, and it just makes everything worse.”
Good point, but clearly traffic would have to stop before the ramp could open again. Then he said something really profound, from my narrow perspective:
“Actually, traffic was better when that thing was damaged than it is normally.”
He explained that with so many people taking transit or finding other alternate means of commuting, the East Bay’s highways were tolerably navigable.
Ray, who had by now arrived at the toll plaza, called and explained that workers were removing shrouding from the I-580 ramp’s sinage, and that’s why they had to stop traffic. Traffic, which he and I noticed was moving again, so I jumped back into the Civic to avoid being run over while attempting interviews.
So I didn’t get to my secret rendezvous until about 8:10 p.m., but I did get to spend some quality time with battle-hardened bridge commuters.
When I got there, there was more waiting to do, and a competing colleague and I managed to collar a guy who had turned around in the plaza just to drive over the new ramp. We thought, he might be the first motorist to cross — what a coup!
Turns out when the lanes finally opened up at 8:40 p.m., his dented 14-year-old compact wagon couldn’t compete with the onslaught of accidental guests at the maze inaugural.
I phoned in my confirmation that Caltrans’ miracle was complete, along with quotes from “one of the first” motorists to travel the rebuilt ramp.
There was business to attend to at home up I-80, just as Just Dave had mentioned, but I couldn’t resist weaving through several lanes of honking traffic to cross that 165 feet of fresh concrete and steel.
Friday morning update: Check out Ray’s time-lapse photos here. This more compelling evidence of why photography should be left to the pros.