Movable barrier makes debut on Golden Gate Bridge (w/video)

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SAN FRANCISCO — Down the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday stretched a sturdy new movable median barrier, a safety measure decades in the making, separating north- and southbound traffic with more than 5 million pounds of steel and concrete where previously there were just hundreds of reflective plastic pylons.

Traffic flowed smoothly across the 1.7-mile span in the first full day of operations for the divider, installed over a weekend of fast-paced work that made for the longest closure in the bridge’s 78-year history. An early morning crash just north of the bridge had nothing to do with the new $30 million barrier, authorities said.

Designed to prevent head-on collisions, it consists of 3,517 interlocking steel-clad segments of concrete, each weighing 1,500 pounds and standing 32 inches tall. For drivers on the inner lanes of the bridge, the median feels close enough to reach out and touch.

Reaction from motorists was mixed. Frequent bridge users said the span felt safer while tourists hardly noticed the barrier.

“I’m very happy with it,” said Vijay Kumar, a taxi driver from Petaluma who shuttles tourists back to San Francisco from the Marin County vista point multiple times per day. “I feel safer knowing an oncoming car can’t come into my lane.”

There have been 16 fatalities from head-on crashes since 1970, and none since 2001, but Kumar said he was always worried that a driver, either texting or drowsy, could easily drift through the old 19-inch plastic cones and into oncoming traffic. On Monday, he said he drove in the fast lane, comfortably protected by the 5.2 million pounds of steel and concrete that now separate traffic.

When the bridge reopened Sunday night, more than six hours ahead of schedule, it was configured for two lanes of northbound traffic and four lanes southbound. At 9:30 a.m., on the tail end of the morning commute a zipper truck made the first lane reconfiguration, moving the barrier to the center of the bridge in 25 minutes without incident, said Priya Clemens, a bridge spokeswoman.

“It went well,” she said. “If anything, we are experiencing people speeding through too fast. We want people to slow down and get used to the changed conditions.”

The daytime alignment, with three lanes in each direction, remains in place into the evening commute before being shifted back overnight to prepare for morning traffic.

The speed limit on the southbound approach to the bridge has been reduced from 55 to 45 mph. Traffic now merges from the right to the left. About 120,000 motorists use the Golden Gate Bridge to get in and out of San Francisco on a typical weekday.

A morning crash at the north end of the span backed up traffic into San Francisco, but the CHP said it was not barrier-related.

“The barrier was not even touched,” CHP Officer Andrew Barclay said.

The crash, just before 8 a.m., blocked one of the two northbound lanes of traffic. No one was injured, Barclay said. Distraction appeared to be the cause, he said.

Heavy fog shrouded the bridge Monday morning when Ben Gibson of San Antonio drove across the bridge on a sightseeing tour. It was Gibson’s first crossing in years, and he said he did not notice the barrier.

Seeing the four TV news trucks lined up at the vista point parking lot to cover the barrier’s first day, Gibson said he was surprised to learn that there had not been a median barrier on the bridge until now. He said the gray barrier with yellow reflective striping did not mar the view of the world famous landmark.

“From a tourist standpoint, you’re not looking at the barrier, you’re looking at the superstructure of the bridge,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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