Richmond–San Rafael Bridge

Richmond–San Rafael Bridge

Richmond–San Rafael Bridge
The Richmond–San Rafael Bridge from its western terminus
Carries 4 lanes (2 WB on upper level, 2 EB on lower) of I‑580
Crosses San Francisco Bay
Locale San Rafael, California and Richmond, California
Official name Richmond–San Rafael Bridge or John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge
Other name(s) Richmond Bridge
San Rafael Bridge
Owner Caltrans
Maintained by Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority
Design Double-Decked Dual Cantilever bridge with Pratt Truss Approach
Total length 29,040 ft (5.500 mi; 8.85 km)
Clearance below 185 feet (56 m)
Opened September 1, 1956 (September 1, 1956)
Toll Cars (westbound only)
$5.00 (cash or FasTrak), $2.50 (carpools during peak hours, FasTrak only)
Bridges in the San Francisco Bay

The Richmond–San Rafael Bridge (also named the John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge[1]) is the northernmost of the east–west crossings of the San Francisco Bay in California, USA, connecting Richmond on the east to San Rafael on the west end. It opened in 1956, replacing ferry service by the Richmond–San Rafael Ferry Company.[2]


  • Description 1
  • Tolls 2
  • History 3
  • Seismic retrofit 4
  • Third lane 5
  • Closures 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The bridge—including approaches—measures 5.5 miles (29,040 feet / 8,851.39 m / 8.9 km) long. At the time it was built, it was one of the world's longest bridges. The bridge spans two principal ship channels and has two separate major spans, each of the cantilever type. To save money, both main cantilever sections were designed identically, including the angles, necessitating the "dip" in the central section, giving the bridge a "roller coaster" appearance and also the nickname "roller coaster span". This appearance has also been referred to as a "bent coat hanger". After it was completed, many were disappointed by the aesthetics of the low budget bridge,[3] especially when compared to the engineering and historical marvels of the neighboring Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.

Golden Gate Transit bus routes 40 and 42 provide public transportation across the bridge, connecting El Cerrito del Norte BART and Richmond BART/Amtrak (42 only) stations and other locations in Richmond with San Rafael Transit Center and other locations in San Rafael.


Tolls are only collected from westbound traffic headed to San Rafael at the toll plaza on the east side of the bridge. Since July 2010, the toll rate for passenger cars is $5. During peak traffic hours, carpool vehicles carrying three or more people or motorcycles pay a discounted toll of $2.50.[4][5] For vehicles with more than two axles, the toll rate is $5 per axle.[6] Drivers may either pay by cash or use the FasTrak electronic toll collection device.


Originally a part of State Route 17, the bridge is now part of Interstate 580. Upon its opening, the Richmond–San Rafael bridge was the last bridge across San Francisco Bay to replace a previous ferry service, leaving the Benicia–Martinez Ferry across Carquinez Strait as the only remaining auto ferry in the Bay Area (it would be replaced by a bridge in 1962). Each deck of the bridge has 2 lanes and a shoulder; westbound traffic rides on the upper deck, while eastbound traffic rides on the lower deck.

Construction was financed by the sale of $62 million in revenue bonds, along with a loan of $4.68 million from the State School Land Fund. The bridge was finished $4 million under budget.

The novel 'Abuse of Power' by Michael Savage has several important scenes set on this majestic bridge. In one, the hero Jack Hatfield escapes his enemies by climbing the work ladders built into the piers.

Seismic retrofit

View southwest from above Richmond

In the fall of 2001, the bridge underwent an extensive seismic retrofit program, similar to other bridges in the area.[7] The fifty-year-old bridge was also showing its age and required age-related maintenance which was performed in conjunction with the seismic upgrade work. There were reports of cars being damaged while traveling on the lower deck by fist-sized concrete chunks falling from the joints of upper deck slabs.

A major part of the retrofit involved the long concrete causeway on the Marin side, which as part of the retrofit program, was nearly completely replaced. Because of the active use of the bridge, Caltrans designed the project to allow the bridge to remain open to traffic. For economy, schedule efficiency and traffic impact mitigation, much of the repair work was fabricated off site and shipped to the bridge by barge.

To reduce impacts to traffic the major work was performed at night. Caltrans kept two lanes of traffic moving in each direction during daylight hours, then reduced that flow to a single lane in each direction at night. Thus, one trestle was completely closed, and the other trestle had two-way traffic.

The concrete segments of the trestle were precast in Petaluma and barged to the site. At monthly intervals tugs positioned barges with one or two 100-foot-long (30 m), 500-ton pre-cast concrete roadway segments to be lifted into place by a 900-ton barge-mounted crane. Earlier, either two or four of the corroded, 50-foot (15 m) concrete segments of the old roadway were removed by crane. Then, a pile driver was moved into position for driving new piles. After the new concrete road segment was in place, steel plates were used to temporarily fill the gaps, and the roadway was ready for morning traffic. At times, construction backed up traffic to Highway 101 into central San Rafael.

The completion of this retrofit, on September 22, 2005 was celebrated as a success despite the many challenges, including the deaths of two workers. The $540 million project, at the time the largest individual contract in Caltrans history, came in $136 million under budget.

The retrofit is intended to allow the two-tier bridge to withstand a 7.4 magnitude earthquake on the Hayward Fault and an 8.3 magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault.

Third lane

Aerial photo of bay taken from a plane
Aerial photo of the bridge and the surrounding area

In both directions, the bridge is wide enough to accommodate three lanes of traffic. Currently the third lane is used as a right-hand shoulder or a "breakdown lane" and is marked along the bridge with the signs "Emergency Parking Only". In 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the third lane was opened up as a normal lane to accommodate increased traffic after the Bay Bridge was shut down because of a failure of that span. Many commuters from San Francisco drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin and then across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge to go to Oakland (and vice versa). After the Bay Bridge was reopened, the third lane was again an emergency lane.

In 1977, Marin County was suffering one of its worst droughts in history. A temporary on-surface pipeline, six miles (10 km) long, was placed in the third lane. The pipe transferred 8,000,000 gallons of water a day from the East Bay Municipal Utility District's mains in Richmond to Marin's 170,000 residents. By 1978, the drought subsided and the pipeline was removed. The disused third lane was then restriped as a shoulder.

Since the construction of the bridge, there has been a longtime debate to make the third lane a bike lane. In 2001, a study confirmed that bicycle travel was legal and would be adequate in the 12' shoulder space provided by the bridge. However, to this day bicycle riders still are not able to cross the bridge, as the third lane still is an emergency lane.

For ten years, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll authority tried to make the shoulder a regular lane of traffic and a bike lane. A movable barrier would be in place and the third lane would be a regular lane of traffic during rush hour and a bike lane when not needed. Caltrans rejected the idea, arguing the emergency lane is needed for safety. However, on February 11 2015, the Bay Area Toll Authority approved a plan to install a protected bike and pedestrian path on the wide shoulder of the upper deck of the bridge. The path is expected to be complete in 2017.[8] As part of the same project, a third eastbound lane will be added on the lower deck.[9]

View from the east end of the bridge (Richmond) looking southwest toward Southern Marin. San Quentin State Prison is just beyond the edge of the picture on the right. Top right above the bridge is Mount Tamalpais. The broken pilings in the water in the middle left of the picture are the remains of the pier where the Richmond–San Rafael ferry docked before the bridge was built.


Like most San Francisco Bay bridges, this bridge is occasionally closed due to strong crosswinds. The bridge was closed on the morning of Friday, January 4, 2008 as a southerly wind gusting to nearly 70 mph (110 km/h) buffeted the span, knocking over four trucks on the lower deck and one truck on the upper deck. The bridge was closed for six hours. It was re-opened by late afternoon as the strong winds subsided.

This was not the first closure due to high winds. At least one previous event occurred in the late 1970s when high northerly winds forced the CHP to close the bridge. Wind gusts (reported in the Marin Independent Journal) reached 80 mph.

On October 27, 2000 the toll plaza allowed people to cross free of charge due to a "shelter in place" order affecting toll booth operators. The order was given by the Richmond Fire Department in response to a release of toxic gas from a recycling plant.[10]


  1. ^ 2013 Named Freeways, Highways, Structures and Other Appurtenances in California, California Department of Transportation, 2013, pp. 150, 154 and 246. This State of California document indicates that the bridge has two official names, both enacted by legislative resolution, in 1955 and 1981 respectively.
  2. ^ Snodgrass, Marion Myers; Dunning, Judith K (1992). "Changes in the Richmond Waterfront". Memories of the Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Company. Berkeley, Calif.:  
  3. ^ Redman, Sam; Seim, Chuck (2013). Charles Seim: The Bay Bridge Oral History Project (PDF) (Report). Berkeley: The Bancroft Library, University of California. Retrieved 6 February 2015. 
  4. ^ "Frequently Asked Toll Questions". Bay Area Toll Authority. 2010-06-01. Archived from the original on 2010-11-01. Retrieved 2010-06-29. 
  5. ^ "Toll Increase Information". Bay Area Toll Authority. 2010-06-01. Archived from the original on 2010-11-01. Retrieved 2010-06-29. 
  6. ^ "Toll Increase Information: Multi-Axle Vehicles". Bay Area Toll Authority. 2012-07-01. Retrieved 2013-12-29. 
  7. ^ "SAN RAFAEL / Seismic work jolts commute / Retrofit on Richmond Bridge on schedule, but drivers fuming". 2004-05-03. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  8. ^ Rivera, Renee. "Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Bike Path approved". East Bay Bicycle Coalition. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  9. ^ Prado, Mark (11 February 2015). "Big changes planned for Richmond-San Rafael Bridge". Marin Independent Journal. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  10. ^ Man dies in recycling plant explosion, 27-10-2000, access date 03-07-2012

External links

  • article on the 50th anniversary of the bridgeMarin IJWith Little Fanfare...
  • Richmond–San Rafael Bridge Retrofit Completed
  • Caltrans Seismic Retrofit overview
  • California Dept. of Transportation: Richmond–San Rafael Bridge History & Information
  • Richmond–San Rafael Bridge at Structurae
  • Univ. of California, Berkeley: Bridging the Bay: Richmond–San Rafael Bridge
  • Decades of Struggle for Bicycle Access
  • Bay Area Toll Authority—Bridge Facts—Richmond–San Rafael Bridge
  • Footage of the official bridge opening ceremony from September 1956
  • Eastern cantilever span from Point Richmond looking West
  • Live Toll Prices for Richmond-San Rafael Bridge