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San Francisco Bay Bridge - Bridges in San Francisco Bay

beach photos / California Bridges

When the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, commonly known as the Bay Bridge, collected tolls in 1940, it cost a quarter to drive across the San Francisco Bay from San Francisco to Oaklandd―pretty steep for that time. But it was well worth the price to pay off a magnificent structure that allowed automobiles and trucks to access two sides of the bay. Though the toll fee started at 60ยข and was reduced to a quarter to compete with ferry boats, it would eventually pay off the bridge funding bonds and a trip across the bridge would be free. Over 60 years later, drivers paid $3 to cross the bridge in 2005 with expectations of fee increases.  This vital toll bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay and linking the California cities of Oakland and San Francisco in the United States needed a facelift 60+ years after being builtbut nature made sure the job was done sooner rather than later. As you drive over this bridge, you'll likely see construction zones and re-building efforts predicted to last until 2012.

On the best of days, the bridge experiences bottlenecks where drivers must stop or creep along at a snail's pace.  The Bay Bridge  has become a key link in the regional automobile and bus transportation network and is so heavily used that major accidents can cause traffic jams for hours, even when the accident scene is quickly cleared. Traffic on other bridges in the area becomes extremely slow as drivers seek alternate paths to their destinations. 

But the huge Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the bay area October 17, 1989, collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge, causing closure for over one month.  Californians riveted to their televisions can't forget the video repeated over and over again, showing a car perched on the edge of ledge of a broken road, smack dab on the bridge in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The huge Loma Prieta earthquake measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. There were 142 road closures as a result of the quake, with It's San Francisco Bay Bridge and Cypress off-ramp structure of the Dumbarton Bridge in Oakland taking the greatest hit. Only one death occurred on the Bay Bridge as a result of the quake's aftermath.

The bridge consists of two major segments connecting a central island, Yerba Buena Island, with each shore. The western segment terminating in San Francisco consists of two suspension bridges end-to-end with a central anchorage. The eastern span terminating in Oakland consists of a truss causeway, five medium-span truss bridges and a double-tower cantilever span, scheduled to be replaced by an entirely new structure now under construction. The original bridges were designed by Ralph Modjeski. The Bay Bridge opened for traffic on November 12, 1936, six months before San Francisco's other famous bridge, the Golden Gate.

The toll plaza on the Oakland side (for westbound traffic) has several dedicated FasTrak lanes, and is followed by a set of metering lights. Two bus-only lanes bypass the tolls and metering lights. Two other sets of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes end at the toll plaza. There are no metering lights for eastbound traffic, though the number of lanes in the San Francisco approach is structurally restricted, creating backups in this direction during evening rush hour. During the morning rush hour, some of the Bay Area's worst traffic congestion stretches from the Oakland approach onto feeder highways, especially I-80 toward Richmond, California. Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge is restricted to freeway traffic only; pedestrians, bicycles, and other non-freeway vehicles are not allowed.

San Francisco, located at the mouth of the bay, was in a perfect location to prosper during the California gold rush. Almost all goods not produced locally arrived by ship. After the first transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, the city found itself on the wrong side of the bay, separated from the new rail link. The fear of many San Franciscans was that the city would lose its position as the center of trade. The concept of a bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay had been considered since the gold rush days. Several newspaper articles during the early 1870s discussed the idea. In early 1872 a "Bay Bridge Committee" planned to construct a railroad bridge.

The 1.78-mile western span of the bridge between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island presented an enormous engineering challenge. The bay was up to 100 feet  deep in places and the soil required new foundation-laying techniques. At the time of construction suspension bridges could not be made with more than a pair of towers owing to stability considerations, and a two tower span would be longer than practical. The solution was to construct a massive concrete anchorage halfway between San Francisco and the island and to build two complete suspension bridges, one on either side of the central anchorage. Modern cable-stayed bridges may have any number of towers and a modern suspension span, the Chacao Channel bridge is under construction that will have two main spans, made possible by the use of a rigid central tower composed of two A frames.

The eastern span was an engineering feat as well. The crossing from Yerba Buena Island to Oakland was spanned by a 10,176-foot combination of double cantilever, five long-span through trusses and a truss causeway, forming the longest bridge of its kind at the time, with the cantilever portion being the most massive yet constructed. Connecting the two halves of the bridge is Yerba Buena Tunnel measuring 76 feet wide, 56 feet high, and 1,700 feet long. It was the largest diameter tunnel in the world. The enormous amount of rock and dirt excavated from the tunnel was used in part to create Treasure Island.

Construction began on July 9, 1933 with much of the original bridge built on treated wood piling from old growth Douglas Fir trees driven through the soft mud to firmer bottom. (Construction of the Bay Bridge began shortly after that of the Golden Gate Bridge but the Bay Bridge was completed six months sooner.) The total cost of construction for the bridge was $79.5 million. At completion, the bridge became the longest suspended-deck bridge in the world and the longest cantilever bridge in the world. Because it was in effect two bridges strung together; the western spans were ranked the second and third largest suspension bridges. Only the George Washington Bridge had a longer span between towers. The bridge was opened to traffic on November 12, 1936.

When the bridge first opened, it carried U.S. Highways 40 and 50. This was replaced by Interstate 80 in 1964. It now also carries traffic moving up the peninsula from two major highways, US 101 and Interstate 280, and from the eastern side ultimately connects with State Highway 24 to central Contra Costa County and Interstate 880 from San Jose (formerly State Highway 17), The bridge has become a key link in the regional automobile and bus transportation network. It is so heavily used that major accidents can cause traffic jams for several hours, even when the accident scene is quickly cleared. A severe jam can in turn cause traffic on other bridges in the area to become extremely slow as drivers seek alternate paths to their destinations.

The original west approach to the bridge was at Fifth and Bryant Streets, and this is still an entrance to and exit from the freeway, which now continues as the James Lick Skyway. The 1958 reconstruction work on the Bay Bridge also added exit and entrance ramps to the one-way streets that flank the Transbay Terminal.

When the bridge first opened, the upper deck consisted of three lanes of automobile traffic in each direction. The lower deck carried three lanes of truck traffic and two streetcar tracks used by the Key System. Automobile traffic increased dramatically in the ensuing decades while the Key System declined, and in 1957 the bridge was reconfigured with five lanes of westbound traffic on the upper deck and five lanes of eastbound traffic on the lower deck. Trucks were allowed on both decks and the railway was removed. It was necessary to lower the upper deck where it passed through the tunnel and to correspondingly excavate the lower portion so trucks could clear the upper-deck portion of the Yerba Buena tunnel. This was done while the bridge was in use by using a movable temporary span over the portion being lowered. On the lower deck of the tunnel and its eastern viaduct extension it was necessary to remove central supports, with each transverse beam being doubled to take the load across all lanes. It was also necessary to further reinforce each beam supporting the upper deck throughout the entire span, modifications still visible to the traveler. The series of lights adorning the suspension cables were added in 1987 as part of the bridge's 50th-anniversary celebration.

The entire bridge was fabricated using hot steel rivets, which are impossible to heat treat. The rivets were replaced with heat-treated high-strength locator nuts and bolts. Also, the majority of beams were originally constructed of two plate I-beams joined with lattices of flat strip or angle stock. These have all been reconstructed by replacing the riveted lattice elements with bolted steel plate, converting the lattice beams into box beams. This replacement included replacing large diagonal beams joining the faces of the main towers, which now have an improved appearance when viewed from certain angles. Diagonal box beams have been added to each bay of the upper and lower decks of the western spans. These add stiffness to reduce side-to-side motion during an earthquake and reduce the probability of damage to the decking surfaces.

Engineering and economic analysis in 1999 suggested that a simple replacement bridge would cost only a few hundred million dollars more than a retrofit of the existing eastern span and that a replacement, would have longer life span and would require less maintenance.  After more than a decade of study, construction began on a replacement for the cantilever portion of the bridge on January 29, 2002, with completion scheduled for 2012 at a cost of $6.3 billion.

The legal name of the bridge is The James "Sunny Jim" Rolph Bridge, in honor of a former San Francisco mayor and governor of California.   The name is not widely recognized and for all functional purposes has always been the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. CalTrans, the state highway transportation agency, maintains seven of the eight San Francisco Bay Area bridges, excluding Golden Gate Bridge, which is owned and maintained by the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has appeared in many films and novels. In the movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman drove on the top level of the bridge, supposedly towards Berkeley; however, the top-level traffic goes to the San Francisco side, not Berkeley and the East Bay. The bridge also appeared in films such as Born to Kill, Vertigo, The End of the World, George of the Jungle, Made in America, Basic Instinct, Sudden Impact, Sister Act I & II, The Incredible Hulk, and Sid & Nancy.

The Bay Bridge Stats

Location: Interstate 80 between San Francisco and Alameda Counties.
Length: 23,000 ft (4.35 miles, 7 km)
Western suspension bridges
Length 9,260 ft (2,822 m)
Vertical clearance 220 ft (67 m)
Tower height 526 ft (160 m) from water level
Eastern cantilever bridge, truss bridges and truss causeway approaches:
Length: 10,176 ft (3,101 m)
Vertical clearance 191 ft (58 m)
Deepest bridge pier: 242 ft (74 m) below water level – 396 ft (120 m) high
Traffic: 280,000 vehicles per day

The San Francisco Bay is home to some of the most famous and magnificent bridges ever built, including the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Hayward-San Mateo Bridge and the Dumbarton Bridge. Collectively, these five bridges represent a gamut of engineering structures and designs. It's no wonder, given the diverse geography they must span. 

Antioch Bridge
The original Antioch Bridge, a two-lane lift span, was the first toll bridge built across a San Francisco Bay tributary. Opened in 1926, this structure was built by Aven Hanford and Oscar Klatt, the owners of the Carquinez Bridge. They undoubtedly built both crossings to protect their investments against the possible competition of a free bridge. The old bridge was only 21 feet wide and vehicles over 5 tons could not exceed 15 miles per hour. The lift span was raised an average of 95 times a month for passing ships. Even in the raised position, the opening was too narrow for comfortable passage, especially in dense delta fog. Ship collisions nearly collapsed the bridge in 1958, 1963 and 1970.

Benicia-Martinez Bridge
Located 30 miles north east of San Francisco, the Benicia-Martinez Bridge has been determined to be a Lifeline bridge in an event of a disaster.

Carquinez Bridge
Built in 1927, the Carquinez Bridge was built by two grocers to transport goods from Solano County to Contra Costa County

Dumbarton Bridge
The original Dumbarton Bridge, which opened on January 15, 1927, was the first vehicular crossing over the San Francisco Bay. Requiring only 1.2 miles of over-the-water structure, it crossed the narrowest neck of the bay between the present day cities of Menlo Park on the west shore and Newark on the east shore. Built by the Dumbarton Bridge Company for $2.5 million, the original structure was a combination of truss spans and trestle. The lift span was made of lightweight concrete. Safety hazards and traffic congestion related to the lift span prompted efforts to re-build the bridge. The State purchased the bridge for $2.26 million in 1951.

Richmond-San Rafael Bridge
Completed in 1956, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is part of Interstate 580 spanning beween the City of Richmond and the City of San Rafael.

San Mateo-Hayward Bridge
Completed in 1967, the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge carries 77,000 vehicles a day.