All lanes of Richmond-San Rafael Bridge reopen after falling concrete prompted two closures

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It was a traffic nightmare for nine hours after all lanes were blocked on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Thursday when a chunks of concrete fell from the upper deck onto the lower level: No injuries were reported, but one of the slabs struck a Mercedes.

The lanes finally reopened at 7:30 p.m. A private contractor will come in, under an emergency provision, and perform more permanent repairs, beginning this weekend, when traffic on the span is lighter.  

"The largest piece that fell was about football-sized, " CalTrans spokesman Vince Jacala said, describing how the incident started at about 10:30 a.m. when a piece of concrete plunged from the westbound deck, damaging an eastbound Mercedes traveling below. The driver was unhurt, and headed to the airport, did not stop, but reported the incident. 

After that, California Highway Patrol officers found that more pieces that had fallen and the bridge was closed due to the safety risk and structural concerns. The result was a nightmarish traffic situation where people were stranded and stuck until way past the evening commute.

"About 10 minutes in, people started getting out of their cars, so I did too,"  Scott Kozinchik told KTVU, recounting his drive from Marin to the East Bay, which was abruptly halted. Kozinchik and dozens of other drivers waited more than an hour, stranded on the bridge, until they were escorted off.

The CHP reported vehicles were making 3-point turns and backing up to drive the wrong way off the bridge to escape the closure and some motorists were beginning to panic. The closure affected traffic on approaches to the bridge from U.S. Highway 101, in San Rafael and on state Highway 37, an alternate route between the East and North Bay.

Some drivers took the mess in stride.

"Yeah, we were all totally chillin', having fun, looking at the view, and laughing," said Kozinchik. "And it was actually kind of a nice experience, but that's because I wasn't in a rush." 

As the afternoon stretched on, there was traffic gridlock on the bridge approaches, and surface streets leading to the 5.5-mile span. 

Other drivers idled helplessly, monitoring their GPS maps. 

"Google says we will be to Danville in two hours and 21 minutes,"  Catharine Rossiter of Ithaca, New York said from her drivers seat on the I-580 approach. "I know it shouldn't take that long." 

Calrrans insists the bridge is structurally sound, and that concrete erosion is to be expected on a bridge more than 60 years old. Concrete has fallen in years past, particularly after a seismic upgrade to the bridge a dozen years ago, but not recently. 

The bridge was last inspected in August 2018 and carries approximately 90,000 vehicles a day. 

"There's a lot of wear and tear on the bridge because obviously it's a heavy load," said Jacala. "Also weather may come into it, but at this point we are not speculating too much on the cause."

Hope came by early afternoon, as engineers installed a metal plate on the unstable area, a lane was allowed to open in each direction. That eased some of the overload on State Highway 37 to the north- the closest east-west connector. But about 4 p.m., the bridge came to a complete standstill once again. It did not reopen until just before 7:30 p.m. 

"The second time the bridge was closed, more pieces came down, but that was caused by a Calrrans crew doing work on the bridge" explained Jacala, "so there was no threat to public safety because the bridge was closed at the time." 

By the time the bridge re-opened, commuters had been duly reminded what a workhorse the bridge is. 

"I would actually rather go around. It's pretty bad, barely moving," said  Anthony Denevi, inching along, trying to travel from Santa Rosa to Campbell. 

At least one big rig driver from Oakland tried to find a liver lining. 

"This traffic is very very bad, really bad," said Will Weavers,." But it's OK because I'm working, making money by the hour."