Final stages of bike and pedestrian path connecting Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

A milestone in Bay Area transportation is nearing: the first bike and pedestrian path connecting Richmond and San Rafael. 

The final construction stage began Tuesday night, and the path is expected to open later this fall. 

"Any place there's a bike path, I'll definitely use it," said bike commuter Robert Branchau, who rides 16 miles between San Rafael and Mill Valley daily. "So many people on my daily commute gave up their cars for a bike and without that opportunity, you're stuck."   

The path will provide a crossing in both directions, ten feet wide, open 24 hours a day.

Planners are intrigued by how much it may be used. 

"Is this something that in high demand Saturdays and Sundays, and less during the week? We don't know," said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. 

The path will occupy what is now the shoulder on the upper deck heading westbound. 

Users will be protected from traffic by a move-able barrier.

The first barrier sections were delivered to the toll plaza Tuesday evening, where crews unloaded and assembled them. 

They will be installed weeknights throughout the month of October.  

Each section weighs 1,500 pounds, and a few hundred of them will be laid nightly.     

When necessary, the barrier can be removed by a zipper truck, like the one that shifts lanes on the Golden Gate Bridge.   

Project critics have questioned spending $20 million for a path and barrier, when demand is uncertain.

"There are no projections that are worth anything," said Goodwin, "so we will be finding out how many walkers, how many bikers, what time of day they're traveling, and how it changes day to day, weekday versus weekend."

If the usage is too light, there will be renewed pressure to convert the shoulder to a vehicle lane as well. 

When that was done on the eastbound lower deck 18 months ago, it eased evening congestion dramatically.   

"The idea would be a shared use because we have a move-able barrier going in," said Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly, who also sits on the MTC Board of Directors. 

Connolly hears from many elected leaders and employers who want relief for A.M. commuters too.
"Whether you're a teacher or other worker trying to get over westbound in the morning, you're facing a huge back up," said Connolly. 

Eventually, the barrier might be moved aside for vehicles, transit, or carpools at peak hours and then put back in place for bikes and pedestrians at other times. 

"This is not about pitting bikes versus single occupancy vehicles," said Connolly. "It's about giving people realistic options to get across that bridge and get to work." 

Commuting or not, people seem excited about the new path, offering scenic water views and a four-mile walk or bike ride.  

"Trying it out for the novelty of it, that could be really fun," said Richard Allen, cycling to his home in Greenbrae. "That's a long ride but for people who are really enthusiasts, it could be awesome and a nice challenge."

Once the path opens, there will be a 6-month pilot period to assess how busy it is.

At the same time, there will be assessments of whether the aging bridge can handle three lanes of traffic on top, and how the Marin side would need to change to accommodate it. 

Caltrans and the MTC also plan to eliminate the toll plaza at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and switch to all-electronic toll-taking, which is expected to improve traffic flow.