SAN FRANCISCO — America’s most iconic bridge is trading plastic pylons for a heavy-duty zipper — and it’s shutting down this weekend for the upgrade.
Nearly two years after eliminating human toll takers, the Golden Gate Bridge will replace pylon-toting people with giant yellow “zipper trucks” that will move a heavy, concrete median to reconfigure traffic flow during the peak commute.
The 52-hour closure is the longest for the Golden Gate bridge since it opened in 1937.
“It’s been closed a few hours for high winds and for ceremonies, but it has never been closed for one full day much less two whole days,” bridge spokeswoman Priya Clemens said Thursday.
The movable median is one in a string of significant changes to the historic structure that welcomes 40 million motorists a year. Not only were toll booths shuttered in 2013 in favor of automation, but the installation of nets under the bridge to discourage suicide jumpers is expected within a few years.
Although vehicle traffic will be banned during the closure from 12:01 a.m. Saturday to 4 a.m. Monday, Golden Gate Transit buses will still cross on their usual weekend schedule. Extra ferry service also will be added for determined weekend travelers. Pedestrians and bicyclists will be allowed on the bridge’s east sidewalk during construction, but the parking lots at the bridge will be closed.
The foot-thick, solid median is necessary to improve safety on the bridge, Clemens said, especially to reduce the chance of head-on collisions on the six-lane span. Thirty-six people have died in car accidents on the bridge since 1971 — the last in 2001 — including 16 in head-on crashes. (Suicides have claimed many more. Roughly two dozen people jump from the bridge each year, some 1,500 since it opened 77 years ago.)
Still, the change is bittersweet for the lane workers who for decades have “pulled and plugged” the plastic tubes in and out of one-inch sockets while riding in the back of a truck. They have braved torrential rains, freezing winds and bone-chilling fog — starting at 4:30 a.m. — to reconfigure the six-lane, 1.7-mile span into four southbound and two northbound lanes. By 10 a.m., they revert it to three in each direction.
“It’s quite an adrenaline rush. You’re sitting in the bucket of a truck seat belted in and you have cars flying by you within inches,” said Bill San Gregory, 47, the chief bridge service operator who will be pulling out the plastic tubes for the last time just after midnight Saturday morning. “It’s scary yet exciting.”
There’s an art to pulling and plugging each hole without a single miss, which means no need to push the buzzer to alert the driver to stop and go back. They call a perfect run a “no-hitter” and there’s high-fives all around.
“The first time I did it, I was very proud of myself,” said Mike Russell, 22, who will have a new job driving one of the zipper trucks. All but one of the 12 pylon plugger positions have been reassigned to other jobs. “It’s difficult when it’s raining and windy. You’re trying to plug the tube and it’s blowing your arm around and you’re trying to get it in that one-inch hole.”
Russell is also an amateur boxer and says he gets the same feeling pulling and plugging as when he enters a boxing ring.
“You’re pulling tubes and see headlights coming at you so close,” he said. “It gets your heart pumping.”
But he’s also proud, he said, that he’s “part of the past and part of the future.”
That future is costing $30.3 million, including the purchase of the two 52-foot-long “zipper” trucks. The massive trucks swallow up a chain of 800, 32-inch-high concrete blocks into a channel in the truck’s undercarriage and slides them one-by-one like a zipper one lane over.
The thickness of the barrier will also mean a loss of six inches to the two inner lanes of traffic that officials say will take some adjustment for drivers. The speed limit will be reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph. Plans for a one-foot-wide movable barrier have been underway since 1995, after plans for a two-foot wide barrier were rejected in 1985.
Meg Zodrow, 38, who commuted for nine years over the Golden Gate Bridge, welcomes the change.
“I always felt bad for those guys hanging out the side of the cars, grabbing those pins,” she said. “Maybe it will take away from the aesthetics of the bridge, but I personally will feel a lot safer. There’s no way there will be a head-on collision. That was always a concern driving the bridge twice a day for nine years.”
In fact, she’s pleased with all the changes past and future. While she hated to see toll takers lose their jobs when they automated last year, she said the commute is quicker because of it. And plans in the coming years to install a safety net under the bridge to discourage jumpers will also save lives.
“The way we live changes,” she said. “So the bridge has to keep pace.”
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