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Bridgetender Shares the Ups and Downs of Alameda’s Bridges

If you live in Alameda, you’re probably well aware that six drawbridges cross the estuary and provide a crucial path between Alameda and the “mainland.” And we all know about the February 2023 power outage, during which some of those drawbridges were stuck open at the same time.

Alameda Post - Bridgetender Robert Silva wears a high visibility yellow shirt and holds a hand on a crank that raises a drawbridge
Bridgetender Robert Silva at the control panel inside the Bay Farm Island Bridge tower (L). A hand crank used by bridgetenders inside the tower. Photos Liz Barrett.

A few weeks ago, after the Alameda Post referenced that incident in an article meant to provide perspective on how we can prepare for the next big earthquake, we received an email from Robert Silva, an Alameda bridgetender. He wanted to clear up exactly what happened on the day those bridges got stuck and offer his suggestions for how the Alameda County Public Works Agency—which operates and maintains those drawbridges—might improve their disaster preparedness. He invited us to visit him at work so he could show us how the bridges operate and offer us more information.

Learn more about each of Alameda’s six drawbridges.



Bridgetenders operate bridges manually

All of Alameda’s bridges are operated by bridgetenders, who work inside the bridge towers and respond manually to calls to open the bridges for vessels in the water, and then push buttons and turn cranks that allow the bridges’ gears, motors, and counterweights to open and close the span. The bridges basically have the same equipment they had when they were first built, with a few upgrades, Silva said. All are operated manually.

“Park Street Bridge has been renovated but still has basically the same motors,” he told us. “You have to be able to run the bridges manually, but Park Street is a little bit more automatic.”

Bridgetenders take turns working at each of the bridges. On the day we visited Silva, he was working at the Bay Farm Island Bridge—the longest drawbridge in the county—which runs parallel to the Bay Farm Island Bicycle Bridge. The bicycle bridge is the only drawbridge exclusively for bicycles and pedestrians in the United States. Both bridges are single-leaf bascule bridges, which basically means they are drawbridges with a single span that opens upward—utilizing gears, motors, and counterweights—to allow boats to pass underneath. In this case, when one bridge opens to allow water traffic through, the other bridge must open as well.

Silva lives in Alameda, but he wasn’t at work the day the bridges got stuck open. A friend who was working told him that the power had gone out and three of the bridges were stuck open. “It just seemed so far-fetched to me,” Silva said. He also heard on the news that three of the bridges were stuck open, but that wasn’t true, he said.

Alameda Post - bridgetender Robert Silver stands by the open door to a bridge tower
Robert Silva, shown at the entrance to the Bay Farm Island Bridge tower, has tended Alameda’s drawbridges for 16 years. Photo Liz Barrett.

Only two bridges were stuck open, not three

“They said it was Park Street, Miller-Sweeney, and High Street that were stuck open,” Silva explained. “But it wasn’t Miller-Sweeney that was stuck, it was the Fruitvale Railroad Bridge, and that’s always up.” Part of the confusion is that most people mistakenly refer to the Miller-Sweeney Bridge as the Fruitvale Bridge, because it crosses the estuary to Fruitvale Avenue in Oakland. The actual Fruitvale Bridge, which runs parallel to the Miller-Sweeney Bridge, was built for trains to cross the Oakland Estuary, but it is no longer in use and is always in the “up” position.

So, two in-use bridges were stuck open that day. Not three. But still, that’s a problem. How did it happen?

“That was a very freakish moment,” Silva said. The bridges were already open and were just at the beginning of being put back down when the power outage struck, he explained. So, they were stuck open.

That happened to prevent the bridge from closing in response to a power outage that made it inoperable. All bridge operations are regulated by the United States Coast Guard, which functions as the enforcement arm of the Federal Department of Homeland Security. They are governed by Maritime Law, which states, “In the event that a drawbridge is unable to operate for any reason, the bridge is to remain open to vessel traffic until the bridge is again operational or is removed.”

Manual override requires bridgetenders on both sides

Manually overriding the automatic operation that stuck the bridge open when the power went out requires two bridge employees—one to stay in the bridge tower and another to radio for permission and then go to the other side of the bridge and manually make the switch—and that can be a challenge when you don’t have immediate access to cross the water.

“You have to get on the radio and get a guy to come down and help, but that guy has to get to the other side (of the estuary), so he’s got to go around to one of those other bridges that is not stuck open,” Silva said.

To add to the problem, people on the street were getting antsy and some were misbehaving, to say the least. “We had people who were stuck in their cars getting out and walking around,” Silva continued. “They were going around the barriers and looking off the side down into the pit. A lot of people. It was very dangerous.”

Alameda Post - a photo of the Bay Farm Island Bridge tower and the side by side view of that bridge next to the bicycle bridge
At almost 1,000 feet in length, the Bay Farm Island Bridge is the longest drawbridge in the county. It runs parallel to the Bicycle Bridge. Photos Liz Barrett.

Rare combination of factors unlikely to be repeated

In short, the situation of two traffic bridges getting stuck open was due to a combination of factors that rarely ever happen, including the scope and timing of the power outage, Silva said. In his 16 years as a bridgetender, he has never seen it occur before. If the power had gone out just a split-second earlier, the bridge would not have been on the way down and operations would not have automatically shut down, he said.

That’s why Silva felt so strongly about explaining all of this—he doesn’t want people to fear that this is likely to happen again during an earthquake. He doesn’t believe it will. But likely or not, we do have to be prepared for the possibility. What can Alameda County Public Works do to prepare?

Silva believes that all our city and county agencies—public works, police, fire, medical emergency, etc.—need to beef up their communications. No matter what is happening, information needs to be shared quickly and clearly, at all times. That includes making it a priority to keep local news media informed, so they can swiftly provide accurate information to the public. During the February power outage, some news agencies reported incorrect information because there was no immediate source for the correct facts. Meanwhile, if police had known more about the situation, they could have directed traffic from Park Street onto side streets toward other working bridges or the Posey Tube. At the time, nobody seemed to know anything about what had happened or when it might get back to normal.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved and eventually all the bridges reopened. Yet we’re still talking about it. It’s good to know that there were two, not three, traffic bridges stuck open—and this probably is not a harbinger of some future drawbridge catastrophe scenario. After all, we love our bridges. We need them. And under normal conditions, we are accustomed to waiting while they open for water traffic to pass underneath. As long as they come back down within a normal amount of time, we don’t really mind. It’s just part of the charm of living on this island.

Liz Barrett is the Copy Editor of the Alameda Post and writes about our community. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Liz-Barrett.

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