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A Day on the Bay: A Look at the (New) Bay Bridge

new bay bridge
The sleek new spans look futuristic, don’t you think?

For decades, I’ve been a bit confused about what my father does at work. I know he’s an electrical engineer and designer, but—for someone who knows next-to-nothing about engineering and construction—those titles have never given me a concrete visual of what he does.

Designing electrical stuff. That entails screwing in some light bulbs, right?

electrical
A close-up in a room with electrical controls.

It was splendid to spend the day with my dad on his work turf and be treated to a private tour of one of his major projects, the new Bay Bridge, which is being built next to the existing eastern span (between Treasure Island and Oakland).

under the bay bridge
A view taken from the staircase to the substation (under the bridge).

For years, I’ve listened to him talk in pieces about this massive long-term project, and—when I lived in my parents’ home—often saw him studying and scribbling on stacks of construction and design plans, with markings that looked liked ancient Greek to me. Despite not understanding anything, I have always loved the look of my father’s handwriting on blueprints: All capital letters. Strong and straight. Sharp and slightly slanted. Very masculine. When I was younger, I tried to replicate it with no luck: it’s as if it requires a particular combined physical and mental strength—one I don’t have.

bridge blueprint
Bridge plans, with lights and all.

Because in some ways, my father and I very different—from how we think, how we view the world, how we explain and emote, and what we prefer. If we’re in an empty room together, with nothing but a tape measure, he’ll use the tape measure. He thinks in terms of inches and exactness—of fragments that will fit together—in a world where his ideas turn into things he’s built with his hands.

Me? Well, I wouldn’t have noticed the tape measure. And most of the time, my ideas rarely ripen and my fragments just float.

But in other ways, I am his carbon copy: I inherited his reserved demeanor, his deadly silence, yet also a playfulness that runs deep in his family clan.

So, it was refreshing today to explore the bridge’s new western span—on top, underneath, and inside—while he explained what things were and how they worked in a way I understood. His personal connections to the spaces and parts—from the electrical rooms to cable trays to a futuristic-looking “hinge” that is instrumental to the bridge’s earthquake-resistant design—added a special dimension to our visit.

western span of the bay bridge
The exposed western span of the new bridge.

Plus, I realized how smart and awesome he is. Or, I already knew this, but seeing him in his element—and the physical results of years of work—made my day.

So, here’s a peek at the parts of the bridge we explored. Again, I don’t have a bridge engineering or construction background, which you’ll sense in the videos especially, so please excuse this. But I’m guessing most people who read this post will have little knowledge of the bridge project, too.

A brief intro:

So yes, the parts of the bridge are manufactured in China and then shipped via sea to San Francisco Bay. I also learned that a section was built in nearby Stockton, and I saw the different sections “glued” together. Another thing to note is that there’s a bike path along the eastern span (but not going west, toward San Francisco).

From the road, we took a staircase down to a service platform to the west substation, which you enter from underneath. The sub west platform had a stunning view between the two new spans, which I had to tweet.

And here we go, down the stairs:

Underneath the bridge, where we stopped for a moment, I was told birds used to hang out in a particular nook, while sometimes you can see seals below in the bay. After, we climbed a short flight of stairs into the bridge. Wandering inside the substation is like exploring an underground tunnel: it’s dim and eerily quiet. The temperature, surprisingly, isn’t too hot or cold; I was told it remains fairly constant. I loved the sound of our echoing voices and the occasional grating of hard surfaces.

The walkway inside the bridge is long, and the section is quite wide:

We reached a section with two circular clusters of tubes flanking an opening to an area exposed to the outside. My dad called this the “hinge,” one of many elements he worked on, which will help keep the bridge together during an earthquake.

For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of Alien³:

The new Bay Bridge is designed and built to withstand an earthquake with an 8.5 magnitude. Learning about the design was the most fascinating part of the day; I was reminded of the way AT&T Park is designed as well—a massive structure that will move kind of like an accordion in an earthquake, which I learned on a ballpark tour. (And FYI, the use of “accordion” is my own, not my dad’s nor anyone on his team.)

On the earthquake-resistant design:

More on the design from the west substation. I also scurry through the “wingside” to a sloped area (with access to the road):

Before we left, they suggested I let out a high-pitch scream from the belly of the bridge, along the dim walkway. I was curious what that would sound like, so had to try it.

The result:

Many thanks to my father and his team for letting me tag along today!

View More Photos:

Flickr: SF’s (New) Bay Bridge

Categories: san francisco

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.

8 replies

  1. Philip: Glad you enjoyed that line! I’d been thinking of a simple way to describe the differences between my dad and me. The first image that came to mind was the two of us in a room with a tape measure. Kinda odd, but it somehow works!

    TheOtherFrosti: Yeah, I certainly am proud. Definitely awaiting the finished product. Sometime in 2013, if I remember correctly.

    Julie: Thanks! It was a fun day, and it’s great to spend this kind of father-daughter time together.

    Joyce (or, Mother): It looks awesome already and it’s not even finished! Can’t wait to see the end result.

    Journey Photographic: Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a note. I agree: the project is impressive. Glad you enjoyed.

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  2. Interesting and informational (sounds like a seminar eval.) You should see your dad’s grin when he saw/read the post. So jealous that I didn’t get to join the tour. I think it will be an awesome looking bridge!

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  3. Thanks for taking us on a tour…interesting and way fun! It must have been great to see your dad “in action” at work. Bet he was proud to have his daughter along as well.

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  4. Toootttally futuristic/alien like. This is a huge project, your family must be proud of your dad. Amazing that you were able to get a VIP tour, I’m excited for the finished product!

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