Looking Back: Marin’s Roller Coaster

Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

IF YOU’RE A bridge, it could be tough living in the shadow of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. And when you’re called Swayback or Hunchback, being labeled Marin’s roller coaster is considered a compliment. Here’s how the distinctive curve in the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge happened: in the late 1940s, union strikes beached the ferries that daily transported cars and commuters from Marin to the East Bay and back. Reliability was needed. So in June 1951, $62 million in state bonds were approved and it was decided “cost savings were more important than aesthetic values.” That, according to Marin Independent Journal reporter Mark Prado, “resulted in a critical design decision.” As Prado wrote in his December 31, 1999, story, “Rather than design two distinctive cantilevered sections, a single element was drawn, then duplicated — and that created a dip where the two downward slopes met.” The 5.5-mile (including approaches) double-decked bridge took three-and-a-half years to complete and, at its opening in September 1956, was one of the longest bridges in the world. Of current interest: originally each deck — one heading east, the other west — had three lanes. But eventually Caltrans closed one lane on each deck to allow for “emergencies and maintenance.” And that two lane status is still a matter of contention.

Richmond - San Rafael Bridge