Newspaper article International New York Times

Golden Gate's Sturdier New Median Draws Sighs of Relief ; despite Longest Closure in Famed Bridge's History, Drivers Say It's Worth It

Newspaper article International New York Times

Golden Gate's Sturdier New Median Draws Sighs of Relief ; despite Longest Closure in Famed Bridge's History, Drivers Say It's Worth It

Article excerpt

The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic during the weekend for the longest period in its nearly eight decades as crews installed a stronger safety barrier.

Dillon Hartwig's commute from south of San Francisco to a Sausalito restaurant took three times longer than usual because his usual route -- over the Golden Gate Bridge -- was closed.

But Mr. Hartwig, a 23-year-old busboy and barista, had no complaints about the inconvenience of his two-and-a-quarter-hour alternative commute via a train and a bus to get to work.

For the longest period in its nearly eight decades, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic during the weekend as crews retrofitted the structure to install a safety barrier to separate northbound from southbound traffic.

"It's better than those little tubes," Mr. Hartwig said of the flimsy 19-inch plastic tubes that had separated traffic. "It'll definitely feel safer for me with more of a wall," he said, while working Saturday night at Le Garage, a popular Sausalito bistro, which was quieter than usual because of the bridge closing.

For Mr. Hartwig and countless other drivers, the 1.7-mile trek across the Golden Gate Bridge was often a white-knuckle experience, with only the plastic tubes offering protection from opposing traffic. Accidents are commonplace, with vehicles crossing into oncoming lanes. (Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Hartwig covered a shift for another busboy who crashed his car while crossing the bridge.)

Sixteen people have died in 128 head-on collisions on the bridge since 1970, said Priya Clemens, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

Dr. Grace Dammann survived a 2008 bridge crossover crash and has been pushing for a more impregnable median barrier since she awoke from a seven-week coma after that accident. In her case, a southbound driver fell asleep and drifted into her northbound lane. Dr. Dammann, a pioneering AIDS doctor, was paralyzed in the accident and uses a wheelchair. Her caretakers consider her survival, detailed in a recent documentary called "States of Grace," a miracle.

"Life turns on a dime. And if we can make it a gentler landing for people, that's good," Dr. Dammann, 67, said before speaking at a ceremony Sunday on the bridge. "That's my prayer."

From the Art Deco bridge's 1937 opening until 1962, its six lanes were equally divided between northbound and southbound traffic. In 1963, the lanes were regularly changed, dictated by the traffic flow, with yellow plastic pylons (as easy to knock down as bowling pins) separating oncoming vehicles.

The new barrier contains 3,500 movable steel-clad concrete blocks, each standing 32 inches high. Two trucks will move the blocks, similar to the motion of adjusting a zipper, across the six lanes to accommodate the traffic demands of 40 million vehicles a year. …

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