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Why Is The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge So Long?

Flickr / Creative Commons
Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. Steve Shea wanted to to know, "Why is the Richmond bridge built on a four-mile gap in the bay when it could have been built over a one-mile gap just a little bit farther north?"

It’s 7:45 a.m. and I’m in the car with Albany resident Steve Shea. We’re headed from the East Bay to his office in Novato.

“Yeah I’ve been commuting to this job ten years now,” he says, his hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on traffic ahead.

As we approach the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge this sunny morning, the bay looks shockingly blue on either side. Commuters are weaving in and out of the lanes, filing in to get onto the span. Steve points to the shoreline peeking over the railing to our right. He‘s pointing to McNears Beach — that’s the point where Steve actually thinks this bridge should have been built.

“That would be a shorter way to go across, definitely,” he says. “If you are building a bridge wouldn’t you want it to be shorter? Why is [it] built over a four-mile gap in the bay when it could have been built over a one-mile gap just a little bit farther north?”

If you look at a map of the bay, just north of where the actual Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is, you will see these two peninsulas reaching out toward one another like fingers just about to touch. On the west side it’s McNears beach and on the east side it’s San Pablo Point. In terms of places to put a bridge, it would seem almost ideal; the distance really is only about a mile between the two land masses.  And yet, in the 1950s the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was built at a much wider part of the bay, resulting in a bridge that is about four times as long as it could have been.
To find out why, I paid a visit to transportation historian Louise Dyble, who also happens to live in Albany.

The bridge expert

As I walk into Dyble’s house, I notice something on the wall. Nodding to it she says excitedly, “It's the Brooklyn Bridge.”

She’s really into bridges.

“To be honest with you, I love the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. I think it’s a really interesting, elegant design. It’s been compared to a bent coat hanger, but I like it,” Dyble says.

I tell her about Steve and his commute — and how he’s a little baffled about the location. Dyble pulls out this huge book and flops it onto the dining room table.  The book, with over 200 pages, is actually a big report from 1951.

Dyble thumbs through the colored maps and charts, explaining its origins.

“This report was a culmination of about ten years of study by the Division of Highways, or actually by the Bay Area Toll Authority.”

Within these pages are investigations, numbers, and calculations, laying out the feasibility of various bridge proposals between the East Bay and Marin County. At the front of the book is a map of the bay with lines drawn across it. Dyble runs her fingers over the lines, counting.

“One, two, three, four ... seven different locations,” she notes under her breath.

Each line was a proposed route for the bridge, and the map actually shows five routes that cross at the northernmost part of the bay — right between those two jutting peninsulas where Steve said he wanted the bridge to be.  

As I look at this map, I find myself totally relating to Steve on this.  It seems as if these shorter routes would have been an obvious choice in comparison to where the bridge was eventually constructed.  

So why wasn't it built there?

Push and pull

“Well that's kind of tricky,” Dyble laughs. “There are two reasons I think: there’s a push factor and a pull factor, right?”

A shorter bridge would have been cheaper to build, and that would definitely be a pull factor. However, Dyble says there were a lot more push factors — factors that kept developers from wanting to build the bridge in that location.

“There were real political, environmental, and engineering challenges getting the traffic to the bridges that you would have built to the north,” she explains.

A lot of this had to do with the Bay’s oil industry.

“If you look up to the north,” Dyble says, “you’ll see these big tanks up on the hill, and those are storing oil and oil products. Any construction could potentially have posed a real hazard to those industrial facilities. Add to that, there were naval oil storage facilities.”

On the east side peninsula, there were and are still to this day oil refineries. Further, as Dyble explains, because some of the facilities in the area belonged to the navy, building there meant having to get federal permission — a total headache.

“There’s a lot going on,” Dyble remarks. “Plus that peninsula is rocky. The route they would have had to run the road along included areas with five percent grade — hilly, difficult terrain. It just didn’t make sense.”

Whereas the length of the bridge seemed so short, so perfect, between McNears Beach and San Pablo Point, realistically it would have been a nightmare to build there. Now, consider the route just south — the route where the bridge actually is built. This area didn't have the push factors of steep rocky topography. No oil refineries. No naval bases. And, it had a huge pull factor: revenue.

The bottom line

In the end it boils down to money.  And for a bridge to make money, it has to have a lot of traffic going over it. Dyble explains that one way to get traffic going over a bridge is to build it in a location where there are already people and roads. Pointing again to the map, Dyble tells me about the ferry system that once ran across the bay in that exact location.

“Because of that ferry, you already have development. You already have people living there depending on the ferry for day-to-day commuting and transportation. These were automobile ferries. So there were already facilities, already approaches. [Highway] 101 was already in place, [it] pretty much looked like it does now back in 1956. It was all ready to go. So building that bridge in that location made a lot of sense.”

This story was originally published in July of 2016.

This story is a part of KALW’s collaborative reporting project Hey Area. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.