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Old Bay Bridge is coming down, without a bang

photo by Isabel Angell

The old eastern span of the Bay Bridge stands empty. Its job is done. Now it’s time for it to come down, and the man overseeing the demolition is Bill Howe, senior engineer with Caltrans.

The first question people usually ask him is, are you going to blow it up? 

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to happen.

“Explosive means would be discouraged although expedient,” Howe says. “That would probably cause a lot of environmental issues that we wouldn't want to deal with, so essentially what we're going to do is take the bridge apart in the reverse order in which it was constructed back in 1936.”

The project will take about three years. If you drive across the Bay Bridge, you’ll get a front row seat to the action, and it’s actually already started, although you might not have noticed. 

Caltrans isn’t doing the actual demolition-- that job falls to the contractor, who won the bid a year ago. Crews have been ripping up the asphalt and concrete, and sending the debris to a local recycler, where it could eventually end up back on the roads. 

And this week --after a short delay-- workers began tearing down the boxy cantilever section. Howe describes this section as “two peaks you see when you come out of the tunnel in the old days, and the suspended span in between the two peaks.”

In less than two months, most of the cantilever will be gone. All this material belongs to the contractor, including the steel, which they get to sell. So far, the contractor has kept mum about where it might end up.

“Steel being a world-wide commodity, it might go anywhere,” Howe explains. “It could stay here in the states, it could go to China, that's the contractors prerogative.”

Once that’s done, another contractor will take apart the foundation of the bridge, all the way down to the mudline. The project is estimated to cost $239 million, and Caltrans says it should be done before 2017.

The next big milestone for the new span will be finishing the wildly popular bike path. Right now -- as anyone who’s gone out there will see -- the path stops short of Yerba Buena Island, forcing walkers and bikers to turn back around. 

“Because for those that don't know,” Howe says, “the old bridge and the new bridge almost touch. And they're so close that the bike path had to stop before we could continue.”

So crews will have to carefully dismantle that part of the bridge before the bike path can go through to Yerba Buena. That should happen by the summer of 2015.

The old bridge has been around long enough that some people have come up with ideas for keeping it -- like turning it into a park.

Howe says that would never work.

“The reason it's vacated is because it wasn't seismically safe. And that same hazard still exists,” he says.

But Howe comes out onto the old bridge several time a week for the project. As we stood on the old span, I asked him if he worried the earthquake will hit when he’s out on it.

“Yeah, all the time,” he answered.

Like, right now?

“Yeah, right now. I think it's dumb for us to be standing here right now,” he says. 

Note to self: I guess I should schedule interviews on the new bridge, from now on.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio link above.