Long-awaited median barrier on Golden Gate Bridge beset by delays, despite funding in hand

Dave Sutton winces every time he hears about a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge.

It could be from the pain — 30 percent of his body has been scarred with burn wounds, and he’s missing a leg and fingers on his right hand. But it’s usually from the knowledge that the latest accident could easily have been prevented.

Sutton should know. He’s been a leading advocate for a moveable median barrier on the historic span since 1994, when he was involved in a brutal head-on collision that cost the life of the other driver. After being rear-ended by another driver while heading north to Marin, Sutton veered into the southbound lane, with no impediment preventing him from meeting the storm of oncoming traffic.  

“Every day is painful for me,” Sutton said. “But it’s particularly bad when I read about accidents on the bridge, knowing that there is no reason for them.”

Sutton and others have been pushing for a moveable median barrier, a 1-foot-wide structure that could be shifted to different lanes to accommodate changes in the traffic flow. Since traffic varies during the evening and morning commutes on the span, a moveable barrier is essential, and studies from the 1990s have shown that a 1-foot-wide structure will virtually eliminate future crossover accidents.

Intransigence regarding any design changes to the iconic span and a lack of funding hampered the project for years. However, funding was secured back in 2008, when a supportive Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District — the agency in charge of the span — accepted a $20 million regional grant to finally build the barrier. With that money, the district said the median would be up by 2010.

But lengthy environmental studies and bureaucratic disagreements between the bridge district and Caltrans, the state’s Transportation Department, have consistently delayed the implementation date, frustrating Sutton and his allies. The latest completion date for the project has been pushed back to 2014 — four years later than first projected.

After hiring a consultant to preliminarily design the project in 2009, the bridge district appeared poised to have the barrier completed by 2011 — a date slightly revised from its original projection. But in early 2010, the district was surprised to learn that Caltrans would have oversight of the project, since the moveable median barrier would extend about 300 feet north of the bridge into U.S. Highway 101. The bridge district’s authority is limited to the stretch of highway directly on the span.

While the bridge district has already received a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act — essentially meaning that the barrier will have no discernible impacts on its surroundings — Caltrans has yet to provide its corresponding approval.

The state Transportation Department is asking the bridge district to review every specific detail of the median barrier to see if the project can help improve the conditions of U.S. Highway 101, which was built under standards that are now obsolete.

“We never thought we’d have to do a detailed definition of how we have to realign certain highway features on Caltran’s right of way,” said Eva Bauer, the district’s chief engineer. “We need to look at so many substandard elements we never anticipated reviewing.”

Environmental reviews on the bridge are already arduous — engineers scrutinize every detail of even the smallest projects to make sure they don’t violate the numerous restrictions imposed upon the span because of its state landmark status. With Caltrans in the picture, the process has been delayed even further.

“People look at this project and say, ‘What’s the big deal, why don’t you just lay the barrier down?’” said bridge district board President Janet Reilly. “But any time you do something on the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s complicated. We want to get this project done, but we have to make sure it’s done right.”

Caltrans wants the bridge district to consider widening shoulders and adding curbs on Highway 101 before it provides environmental clearance to the project. The bridge district insists that it cannot study these things until it enters its final design phase. But, conversely, this cannot occur until the district receives environmental clearance from Caltrans. So for now, the project is stuck in a holding pattern, although Bauer hopes an agreement can be reached in the next month.

“We really need to come to some sort of resolution with Caltrans quickly,” Bauer said. “This project has to move forward.”

Caltrans spokeswoman Traci Ruth said her agency supports the bridge district’s moveable median barrier plans.

However, the agency has raised concerns that the project might hamper the ability of motorists to merge at the Alexander Avenue on-ramp to U.S. Highway 101, since the barrier will reduce the number of lanes at the site from four to two.

“Caltrans has discussed this concern with the Golden Gate Bridge district and we are working together to improve the design to ensure optimum safety in the area,” Ruth said.

Because it cannot enter the final design stages, the bridge district has no idea if the delays will increase the barrier’s projected price tag of $25 million.

While the two agencies seek conciliation, the median barrier languishes. Although the delays have been frustrating for advocates, there has been other progress. After accidents such as Sutton’s, the bridge district dramatically revamped safety conditions on the bridge. The speed limit was lowered to 45 mph, a double-fine zone was implemented and the California Highway Patrol increased enforcement. As a result, there hasn’t been a death on the bridge from a head-on collision since 2001 and the accident rate has shrunk by one-third since the 1980s.

And the bridge district’s current board of directors is much more willing to implement changes on the span than its predecessors, which typically declined to make any alterations that could upset a sensitive public.

“There is support for this project now,” Sutton said. “But it pains me to think that these accidents would be completely gone by now if that barrier was in place.”


Trying to stop deadly accidents

n 1980s: The Golden Gate Bridge district tests a series of median barriers on the historic span, but none are deemed feasible because they are too wide.

n 1996: With the development of a 1-foot-wide barrier, the bridge district approves studies to evaluate safety and traffic ramifications of median.

n 1998: A conceptual approval of a 1-foot-wide barrier is approved by the district, although staff members request further study to answer lingering safety questions.

n 2001: Last recorded fatality from head-on collision on Golden Gate Bridge.

n 2001-07: Various traffic impact, engineering, safety and emergency services studies are completed on the project. Reports conclude that crossover collisions would be virtually eliminated with installation of moveable median barrier.

n February 2008: Golden Gate Bridge district receives
$20 million in regional funds for the barrier. Remaining money for $25 million project will come from federal sources and bridge tolls. Bridge officials say project will be finished in 2010.

n September 2008: The bridge district approves the first environmental impact report of the barrier. Officials say the study will take 20 months, with the barrier scheduled to be installed in 2011.

n February 2010: Bridge district meets with Caltrans to review appropriate type of environmental studies of project.

n May 2011: Head-on collision accident on bridge prompts new questions about moveable median barrier. Bridge district officials say completion date of project has been pushed back to 2013.

n October 2012: Golden Gate Bridge district approves motion to enter into final design of project. However, Caltrans has yet to approve environmental clearance of barrier, preventing project from entering final design phase. Currently, barrier is scheduled to be in place by 2014.

Source: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

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