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Byrd Thysell, Coronado bridge manager, gives a tour

The sky above, the bay below

It’s just after nine o’clock on a chilly winter morning. Much of Coronado has been up for hours, and the toll plaza at the foot of the bridge that ties the tranquil island community to San Diego has quieted down substantially from the frantic rush a few hours before. Toll collectors, able to relax a bit as they sit in their tiny steel booths, munch on midmorning snacks and trade barbs with each other across the traffic lanes. Over on the nearby golf course, two old men interrupt their game to look east at the San Diego skyline silhouetted against a gray backdrop, the chocolate tops of the Laguna Mountains providing the panorama’s only touch of color. And H.B. (Byrd to his friends) Thysell is getting ready to walk across San Diego Bay on a four-foot-wide wire-mesh catwalk underneath the San Diego Coronado Bridge.

As Bridge manager, it’s Thysell’s job is to maintain and operate the massive structure; his duties include supervising toll collections and various maintenance functions, as well as planning for the bridge’s future needs. Once a moth he strolls along the narrow catwalk to inspect the bridge’s vital parts, looking for any structural damage that might have occurred since his was walk determining what sections, if any require maintenance. A slight man of sixty-two with tightly cropped hair, Thysell clearly loves his job, and speaks of “his” bridge with paternal affection as he walks toward his car in the administration building parking lot just west of the toll plaza. ‘It really is a beautiful bridge, a monumental bridge,” he says.

The half-mile road from the parking lot to the bridge’s physical base winds its way along the shore north and east of the toll plaza and ends up directly beneath the bridge. Thysell drives his car along the narrow, twisting road with the absent-minded ease that comes from having traveled the same route many times before. He’s been manager of the bridge for than ten years, and might justifiably view the monthly inspection tours as routine; but he doesn’t. ‘I suppose I’m a bridge buff to start with, and I like to keep abreast of what changes re going on,” he says, ‘the painting maintenance program, in which various parts of the bridge are repainted sooner than others, is a direct result of one of my walks.” After parking beside one of the bridge’s land-based stanchions, or “piers,” Thysell strides up the three flights of stairs that lead to the start of the catwalk. He unlocks a steel door at the top of the stairs, opens it and begins his two mile walk across the bay.

From the air, the San Diego Coronado bay bridge looks like a gigantic letter J. It measures 11,179 feet, just under two and a quarter miles, from Crosby Street and Logan Avenue in Sa Diego to its Coronado base at Fourth Street and Glorietta Boulevard. In the language of engineers, it’s known as an orthotropic bridge, one in which the main sections are constructed in the manner of rectangular boxes serving as the roadway. (Most conventional bridges have their roadway attached separately to the horizontal supporting structure.) Three of these boxes span the center portion of the bridge, and their combined length of 1880 feet is unmatched by any other orthotropic bridge in the world. The roadbed, a mere nine inches thick, is 243 feet above the bay at its highest point. From curb to curb it stretches across five lanes measuring twelve feet each. The concrete bridge rails are only about three feet high (so motorists can take in the view) and are constructed so that the wheels of a colliding car strike it first and the vehicle is thus hurled back onto the roadway. All of this is supported by thirty concrete towers which, in turn, are supported by concrete pilings hammered up to 160 feet into the bay.

The bridge’s sleek design is primarily the work of two architects, Steve Allen of San Francisco and Robert Mosher of La Jolla, who acted as design consultants during the bridge’s construction. (After the state built the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge in 1956, an open-trestle span Mosher describes as “so bloody ugly and awkward . . .a horrible bridge,” the state division of bay toll crossings was directed by Governor Pat Brown to hire a design consultant for all future toll-bridge constructions. “A committee of people came to San Diego and interviewed four local architects for the job, including me,” Mosher recalls. “When they came into my office, I told them from the start that I’d dedicated myself to preventing construction of the bridge. At the time my feelings were that if there was no easy access to Coronado, the rural community there would not be ruined, as was Staten Island with the construction of its bridge in the Fifties, and San Diegans would always have a charming contrast in environment experience. So these guys [the committee members] asked me why I had let them talk to me, and I told them that I was a realist, knew that Pat brown was paying off a political debt to Coronado landowners, and would get the bridge built; and that being the ease, I wanted to help design the most beautiful bridge possible. I was hired. So for the next year, Steve and I just reviewed and contributed to the ultimate design of the bridge. Steve wanted to paint his new penny copper, which he had used on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, but I knew how Coronado was against the whole project and felt it would go over much better if we painted it blue to span the bay and the sky, and the directors agreed with me.

“The design itself was relatively simple to arrive at. The cities of Coronado and San Diego wanted it to be arches (curved) so it would flow into the desired access streets; the state division of highways also wanted an arch to maintain highway speeds of sixty miles per hour; and the Navy wanted a certain amount of airplane clearance over the bay. So when they all got through telling us their requirements, we just took a pencil and drew what was built.”

The only way really to comprehend, not to mention appreciate, the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge’s beauty and simplicity of design and construction is to walk along its inner core. No one realizes this more than Byrd Thysell, and he freely admits that is one of the chief reasons why he enjoys his monthly walks. As it heads out over the bay, the catwalk—following the route of the bridge—slopes upward and to the left. Walking along it, Thysell’s view of the surrounding area is obstructed by steel girder plates that appear to hang from the roadbed on each side of the catwalk. (In truth, the plates and their connecting steel beams support the roadbed.) Every twenty feet or so he must duck in order to avoid hitting his head on the low-slung crossbeams that stretch across the catwalk from girder plate to girder plate; once or twice he forgets and issue a resounding “whoa!” But the Caltrans hard hat that’s mounted on his head like a thimble prevents him from incurring any injury. About a hundred yards over the bay, the crossbeams suddenly start to ascend and he can walk erect, although his hands still grip the catwalk’s steel pipe railing, which houses electrical cables leading to the equipment room at the center of the span. As he lets go of the railing with a quickening of his pace the wire mesh between his feet and the bay blends into a blur and, looking down, it appears he’s treading water from twenty stories up.

Watching gradually round the curve, enveloped by the mass of steel and concrete, like a mountain climber on a face of granite, it’s easy to imagine that he bridge—like a mountain—has been around forever. But as in the case with so many enormous constructions projects, the idea of the San Diego Coronado bay Bridge existed long before the actual bridge did.

A bridge connecting Coronado to San Diego was first proposed in 1926 by the J.D. and A.B. Spreckels Securities Company of San Diego, but Navy opposition (should the bridge collapse, more than one hundred navy ships would be trapped in the southern part of the harbor), along with the Spreckels growth interest in the development of downtown proper, caused the firm to abandon its plans. In the next three years, three more proposals for either a bridge or an underwater tube were made by other private firms, but none of them materialized, primarily because of little community support and continued Navy opposition.

In 1935 the Coronado City Council proposed to build its own toll crossing. A few days after the idea was made public, the San Diego Union Tribune published an editorial in opposition; it was a first in a series that continued for nearly thirty years. Titled “No Bridge,” that first editorial asserted, “there will be no bridge . . . One local citizen of a thousand—even that proportion is too high, we believe—is actually promoting the bridge. And the leading promoters . . . have something to sell, as usual. In this case they hope to sell half of San Diego for one more bridge-building job.” And at a subsequent public hearing the Navy warned that if a bridge were built, all navy ships moored south of the site would be moved to another port. Coronado withdrew its proposal, but submitted a new one a month later. Navy and public opposition continued unabated, however, and Coronado reluctantly withdrew its proposal a second time.

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By the start of the Fifties, business and government leaders on both sides of the bay were again talking about some kind of crossing. That decade saw the completion of two more feasibility studies, both of which concluded that construction of wither a bridge or a tube was physically and financially possible. The question of a crossing was also submitted to Coronado voters, who defeated the measure in 1952 and 1958 but approved it in 1955 after a ferry strike

By the end of the Fifties, momentum was clearly shifting toward the bridge’s proponents. In 1960 Coronado Mayor Robin Goodenough announced he was in favor of building a bridge and asserted that most Coronadans agreed with him. Later that year Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown gave bridge proponents their biggest boost when he authorized the state department of public works to compile a comprehensive study of nine proposed crossings—four bridge and five tube. The study was released in August, 1962 and recommended the construction of a four-lane toll bridge. Both Governor Brown and San Diego’s state senator Hugo Fisher formerly endorsed the bridge concept.

In the ensuing months, Navy opposition began to wane, though as recently as May, 1962 the navy had proclaimed it was against the bridge because “structural failure, sabotage, or disaster” could trap more than 300 vessels, including 120 active-duty ships. IN September the Navy said its worries would end if a second ocean-entry passage were channeled at the South end of the bay. The following month Navy Undersecretary Paul Fay stated that although the Navy would continue its opposition to the bridge, if one were built, the Navy would not curtail its San Diego operations, and if it felt the community really wanted the bridge, all objections would be withdrawn.

The Army Corps of Engineers completed its technical studies in early January, 1964 and announced it was ready to issue a construction permit as soon as the Navy gave its approval. Two months later the Navy formally withdrew its opposition to the bridge in a letter from Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance to Governor Brown, and a permit was issued. Former San Diego Congressman Bob Wilson, one of the bridge’s staunchest opponents, recalls his surprise a the navy’s sudden turnabout, “From a Navy standpoint, a bridge was not acceptable; I supported that position and they deserted me,” Wilson said recently, “But I think the Navy sold out to politicians on that one. They gave up their principle, which was that ships would be trapped in the harbor should the bridge collapse. Brown wanted the bridge and he got to the Kennedy/Johnson people and pressured the Navy secretary to give in. The principal however, is still valid and continues to be held by most Navy technicians. And it’s still unthinkable that in a combat situation you’re going to see very many ships in the south portion of the bay.

“You know, back then I made a promise that if they were going to go ahead and build a bridge, I’d jump off it. I haven’t forgotten that. One of these days I will.”

(As it turns out the Navy never did get its South Bay channel to the sea; and although Captain Jack Garrow, the Eleventh Naval District’s public information officer, refuses to confirm or deny the existence of contingency plans should damage to the bridge trap warships in the harbor, informed speculation suggests that in the event of such an emergency, the Navy is prepared to sue explosives to blow a channel through the Silver Strand somewhere north of Silver Strand park and South of Coronado.)

For the most part, bridge opponents—their chief ally gone—quietly resigned themselves to the fact that the bridge would, after all, be built. But both the San Diego Union and a newly elected (and decidedly antibridge) Coronado City Council continued to fight construction of the span, the former through a series of increasingly melodramatic editorials (including one in which they likened Governor Brown giving San Diego a bridge to the Trojans bringing the Romans a horse) and the latter though lots of verbal blustering and several meaningless resolutions, including one that sought to block construction of the bridge several months after work had already begun. By this time, however, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that a bridge was going to be built, and on May 14, 1964, the California Toll Bridge Authority, with Governor Brown as chairman, agreed unanimously to proceed immediately with construction.

Brown’s motivation in his ardent support of the bridge here has continued to be the subject of speculation. Many knowledgeable people, such as architect Robert Mosher and several local politicians who asked not to be named, insist he was satisfying an obligation to a group of wealthy Coronadans who had contributed heavily to Brown’s campaigns. Prominent among those mentioned has been John Alessio, who at the time owned the Hotel Del Coronado, which undeniably stood to gain from the construction of a bridge. Brown however, denies this charge. “John was a great friend of mine, but he had nothing to do with getting the bridge built,” Brown said recently. “Friendship has nothing to do with politics. I used to go to Coronado all the time and it seemed a waste to always be waiting so long for the ferry. Besides, I just believe in bridges. I put a bridge in San Mateo, I put a bridge in Richmond, I put bridges in all over the state.”

Brown does, however, take principal credit for the construction of the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge. “Without me, it wouldn’t have been built,” he says flatly. “I was the chairman of the California Toll Bridge Authority and personally appointed three of the other four members, including my lieutenant governor. When a suit was filed to block construction right before the bonds went on sale, I went ahead and did it (began Construction) anyway. I wanted to build a bridge.” The former governor also takes credit for helping to alleviate Navy opposition. “The Navy was strongly against a bridge, but I called [Robert] McNamata, the secretary of defense, and told him I, as governor, wanted it and it is shortsightedness on the part of the Navy [to oppose construction]. So he overruled the secretary of the Navy. It wasn’t easy but we did it.”

To finance the project, the Authority hoped to mix state and federal funds. After awarding contracts to various low bidders in each aspect of the bridge’s construction and determining how much it would cost to purchase the San Diego Coronado and Star Crescent ferry companies, which had to be phased out to eliminate competition with the bridge (a provision of the public bonds the state intended to sell), the Authority came up with a new figure of $47.6 million. (The major builders were the Guy F. Atkinson Company of South San Francisco, which built the superstructure and did all necessary steel work for $15.6 million. The cost of buying g out the two ferry companies was estimated at about four million dollars, which included severance pay for the firms’ several hundred employees.

The Authority’s requests for federal money were turned down, and on November 15, 1966, the state agency adopted a resolution to allow the issuance and sale of revenue bonds for the entire amount. The bonds would go on sale December 13 and be paid back from toll revenues in thirty-six years. One-way tolls were set at sixty cents for cars and $1.25 for trucks and buses; commuters could purchase booklets of twenty-five two-way coupons for $22.50. As soon as the bonds were paid off, tolls would be eliminated. And if the payments ever got ahead of schedule, tolls could be reduced. (So far, bind payments are more than thirteen years ahead of schedule but all rates have remained the same except those paid by commuters, who now only pay fourteen dollars for twenty-two way tickets.) The bonds were sold to the only bidder, an Eastern syndicate of investment firms headed by Blyth and Company, the first Boston Corporation, and Ripley incorporated. The group agreed to purchase the Class-A bonds at an interest rate of 5.24 percent, which would net them more than $90 million if the bonds were allowed mature.

On March 6th, 1967, ground was officially broken by a loader that ripped into the surface of Coronado Gold Course, which was bisected by the bridge’s construction. That same month, dredging operations deepened the south portion of the bay and used the displaced sand—all 900,000 cubic yards of it—to create twenty acres of new land to replace the section of the golf course that had been selected as the site of the bridge’s toll collection plaza.

For the reaming month of 1967 the Atkinson Company hammered nearly 500 concrete pilings into the bay floor. Once they were in place, concrete was oozed on top of them by a large tube; the resulting pedestal then provided a base for the large concrete columns that would support the bridge deck. Meanwhile, construction was underway on the toll plaza in Coronado and the access ramps to Interstate 5 in San Diego.

One of the world’s largest floating cranes, the Marine Boss, arrived in San Diego Bay in February, 1968 to begin laying into place the 285-foot steel girders, a task that continued for more than a year. By early 1969 construction engineers were busy figuring out how they would confront their most difficulty task: how to fit into place the final section of the span, a 200-ton, sixty-seven-foot-long steel ‘box.” For the next three months engineers repeatedly measured the gap between the two cantilevered arms of the nearly completed bridge, weighing the arms with one hundred tons of extra steel during the final measurements to simulate the weight of the girder, which had to fit to the quarter inch. Finally, on the morning of May 28, 1969, the Maine Boss lifted the massive box girder—its final measurements thirty-three feet wide, twenty-five feet deep, and just a fraction over sixty-seven feet long—into place in an operation that took only half an hour. To everyone’s relief, the fit was nearly perfect, and workers who had been waiting inside the superstructure immediately bolted the box into place. By noon the bridge was structurally complete—all that remained to do was pave the roadbed and paint the bridge, and the San Diego Coronado bay bridge could open officially to the public on August 2, 1969, less than a month behind schedule. The opening day celebration, attended by various local and state dignitaries such as Governor Ronald Reagan, San Diego Mayor Frank Curran, and Coronado mayor Paul Vetter (who served as master of ceremonies at the dedication), including a VIP caravan from the Hotel Del Coronado to the old ferry landing. After taking the ferry across the bay to San Diego the guest s drove back over the bridge to the hotel. A luncheon for 120 followed. “My most vivid recollection of the day is having a confrontation with the supervisor of the ferry, Sydney Dodge, for having the caravan late for the crossing,” former mayor Vetter recalls. “There was a fifteen minute delay at the landing and we had an altercation that we didn’t mention until a year ago [1981], when we shook hands and finally made up. Later at the luncheon immediately after the dedication ceremonies, Frank Curran and I exchanged the usual repartees regarding out closer ties to San Diego and the fact that we would enjoy all the benefits of proximity to a major metropolis while retaining our small town atmosphere. Then I gave him a key to our city, a small two-inch key I thought I’d surprise him with. But as soon as I did that, he turned to an aide and handed me a huge key to San Diego, ten times as big as the one I’d given him. We all laughed that the keys were proportionate to the size of our communities.”

Maintenance crews spent much of the evening cleaning up the mess that had been left by thousands of revelers on hand for celebration, and at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, August 3, the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge was officially opened to the public. First to cross the bridge was a motorcycle driven by Gordon Moore from his Beverly Hills home, as he zoomed into the toll plaza he screamed, “I made it, man!” In the next twenty-four hours, 40,000 vehicles roared across the bridge.

Opening day for the bridge, however, was also closing day for the ferry. As the last ferries, the Crown City and the San Diego, met in the middle of the bay on their final crossing just before midnight, passengers aboard both boats gathered on the decks to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” earlier in the day, James C. Haugh, president of the San Diego-Coronado Ferry Company, had been asked whether there would be any sort of festivities aboard the ferries. “There are none,” he had solemnly remarked, “As far as the company is concerned, this is no merry-making occasion; it is a sad, sad day and there will be many damp eyes among the company’s 150 employees.” At 11:54 p.m., just seven minutes before the bridge as opened to the public, the Crown City tied up at her Coronado dock for the last time, marking the end of an era in which the venerable ferries has transported more than 250 million people across San Diego bay in eighty-three years.

As it nears the center portion of the bridge’s superstructure—and of the bay—the tiny catwalk gradually levels out, and Byrd Thysell starts to slow his pace once again. He pauses to unlock a tiny, hatchlike steel door blocking his route and, as it swings open, he explains that he’s about to enter the first of the bridge’s three “boxes,” or orthotropic spans. The first and the second spans measure 660 feet in length and are situated directly above the west and center shipping channels; the third box, slightly smaller at 560 feet, sits atop the narrower east channel. Above him, the roar of traffic can be heard sharp and tinny; once he steps inside the massive box, however, it assumes an entirely different sound, richer and fuller of echo as it reverberates from top to bottom, from side to side. The catwalk continues to rest on crossbeams that span the width of the bridge, but here there is a solid panel of steel several inches beneath it instead of only sky and water. Each of the three boxes has dim overhead lighting that Thysell switches on before he enters it; otherwise the massive boxes are virtually pitch black, save for a few streams of light that find their way in through the tiny ventilation windows near each box’s end.

Just before he reaches the end of the first span, Thysell stops and, on a lark, lifts two wooden floorboards that cover up another steel hatch. Unlocking it, than pulling it open, he begins to climb down a frail looking aluminum ladder that reaches twenty feet down the stanchion to a crow’s nest. From this vantage point his view is no longer obstructed by the walls of steel, and looking to the northeast he is afforded a unique impression of the san Diego skyline: skyscrapers in varying stages of completion, the Horton Plaza construction zone, with mounds of dirt and parking lots everywhere, and there—reflected in the mirror walls of the new Columbia Centre building—an image of the bridge itself, distorted by recognizable, closer to the shore, he sees the shipyards and manufacturing plants that seem to flock around the bridge’s base like months around a candle flame.

Walking around the tiny crow’s nest, he looks to the west and sees Coronado matted against the still-foggy outline of Point Loma’s tip, the statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at the national monument is just barely visible; further north, the expensive homes of La Playa are hidden behind a screen of vegetation.

Climbing back up the ladder, Thysell hoists himself through the hatch and, as it swings shut behind him, he points out a large steel bar spanning the top section of the box grinder; similar bars span the other three walls and were installed, he says, as earthquake restrainers in the middle seventies; they’re one of several structural alterations to the bridge since it was built, and they are designed to fortify the bridge against temblors up to 8.5 on the Richter scale.

At the behest of several South Bay cities, the California Toll Bridge Authority in the late 1970s authorized the construction of ramps to and from Interstate 5 south of the bridge, and a year later construction had begun. The bridge was lengthened to accommodate an off-ramp from northbound Interstate 5 and an on-ramp for southbound Interstate 5 at a cost of three million dollars. Shortly after the start of construction, the bridge experienced its first traffic fatality when John Cerny crashed his car into a sign post at the newly built off-ramp.

Throughout the Bridge’s history, one word always seems to crop up: traffic. Traffic was way the bridge was built in the first place; the steadily growing stream of cars traveling from one side of the bay to the other was becoming more than the ferries could handle, with long lines at the ferry landings turning ten minute ferry trips into hour-long delays. Traffic is also why Coronado officials and many of the city’s residents—particularly those living near Third and Fourth streets, the only access routes to and from the bridge—were so opposed to its construction: quiet, peaceful Coronado would be invaded by an onslaught of speeders if the bridge were built. Many feel that prediction has come true. Especially during peak hours, Coronado is a divided city, with the flow of cars bisecting the town like a mobile Berlin wall. And the major issue in last November’s Coronado municipal elections was traffic, with all five city council candidates calling for state or federal assistance in solving problems through a variety of solutions, ranging from the workable (construction of a peripheral causeway around Coronado; restraining the ferry to relieve some of the bridge load and to divert north Island traffic from downtown Coronado) to the preposterous (blowing up the bridge).

The bridge’s traffic statistics illustrate why so many Coronadans’ wrath has been aroused. On the average, the ferries transported 8000 and 9000 vehicles a day to and from Coronado. During the bridge’s first year of operation, its daily average was 16,500. Today the daily average is 38,800. “I can certainly understand how come people feel, especially the long-time home owners along third and fourth streets,” says Eleanor Ring, a member of the Coronado City Council in the early Sixties and an outspoken opponent of the bridge’s construction. “All of a sudden, a quiet area is a disaster. And believe, me, there is a problem with traffic; it’s difficult even for the children to get across the highway. There have been all sorts of proposals to eliminate this problem, and I think one of the best ideas would be to build a tunnel from the bridge at North Island, which is where a lot of the traffic comes from; or at least a road that gets around the island to the amphibious base. There should be some way the traffic can go outside of Coronado—the village, we call it. It might cost a lot of money, but we didn’t want a bridge from the start. We began petitioning against it in 1951 and since then have voted ti down twice. Then along came Governor Brown, not Jerry but his father, and all of a sudden we’re out. It’s a beautiful bridge; I don’t mind it now at all. But I know people who won’t drive across it. They just don’t go to San Diego.”

Some Coronadans, however, feel the traffic problems are Coronado’s own fault. “When the state feasibility study came out in 1962, there were four different choices for a bridge, and the state was willing to listen to us before they made their final recommendations,” recalls former mayor Paul Vetter. ‘But the city council at the time didn’t take any action because it refused to acknowledge that there as even going to be a bridge. So the state, in effect, told the council, “we’ll go ahead and if you don’t make up your minds, we’ll just do it for you.’ And they did. Its unfortunate the council failed to recognize any of the potential problems when the bridge site was being decided on. Their Failure to do so caused the particular traffic problems we have today.”

By now Byrd Thysell is approaching the San Diego shore; he’s gone through the last of the three orthotropic “boxes” and is back on his wire-mesh catwalk. He pauses for a moment to look up at one of only two manholes leading from the catwalk to the median on the roadbed above. The ray of light that shines in his face when he pushes the loose-fitting round cover outward reveals that the clouds have at least partially given way to sunshine, and Thysell smiles as he asks in the glow for a moment. His smile is quickly replaced by a somber frown at the mention of bridge suicides.

‘Suicide,” he says slowly, “is an aberration that society has not yet been able to solve. Yes, there have been quite a number, but we try to play it down. If you give suicides a lot of publicity, they tend to precipitate others,”

In the predawn hours of May 3, 1973, Theodore Dummier ended his life by jumping off the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge. He thus earned the dubious distinction of being the first of nearly one hundred such people—about one per month. Although Thysell doesn’t like to admit it, the suicide rate for his bridge is very close to that of the state’s leading death ledge, the Golden Gate Bridge, which had had about 700 suicides in forty-five years—a comparison made more significant when one considers that the bridge here does not permit pedestrians, while the Golden Gate does—and higher by far than other bridges in the state that also prohibit pedestrians. The Oakland bay Bridge, for example, has only had 120 suicides in forty-six years, just a shade more than the san Diego bridge has had in less than a quarter of the time.

According to deputy county coroner max Murphy, jumping off high places is the third most common form of suicide in San Diego, right behind gunshots and poisoning (usually by barbiturates). And of the people who jump to their death, more leap off the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge than from any other structure 9even in San Francisco, the number of people who jump off the Golden Gate is second to the number of people who jump from the roofs of their own homes). Most jump off the bridge’s center span—nearly 250 feet above the water—apparently hoping for a quick painless death by drowning. But they’re in for a surprise, says Lowell Burnett, chairmen of San Diego State University’s physics department. Burnett points out that after jumping from height; a person hits the water in about four seconds. “BY that time, it [a body] is traveling at eighty-six miles per hour, and the impact is like hitting concrete,” Burnett says. ‘As a result, the most common cause of death is not drowning but internal injuries.”

“It’s quick, but it can’t be painless,” bridge manager Thysell adds. “You see people floating in the water with their clothing ripped off, their bodies twisted . . . it’s not a nice sight. Usually the harbor police will pick them up right away. But sometimes, they’ll just float . . .”

Over the years, a handful of people have survived the leap from top, including a woman who was fished out of the water alive after her first jump in the mid-Seventies, only to dive off a year later (she died in the second fall). Thysell says these cases of survival are the exceptions rather than the rule; the success rate for bridge suicides is nearly one hundred percent.

Climbing through a hatch at the east end of the catwalk, Byrd Thysell walks up a half dozen steps and finds himself in a wire cage at the start of the median, just a short distance from where the on and off ramps from Interstate 5 connect with the bridge. Scratching his head in a momentary stupor ad his eyes adjust to the bright daylight, he opens the cage door that leads into the roadbed, hops over an aluminum traffic barrier, and carefully, watching for cars, hurries along the inside lane to the foam crash rail that shields a block of concrete several yards to the west of the cage. There he sits down and, while waiting for the chance to flag down a passing Caltrans truck to take him back to Coronado, talks about future improvements planned for the bridge.

Within the next six months, he says, a $500,000 permanent steel scaffolding system will be installed in the west end of the bridge’s interior to facilitate future maintenance and repair work. Similar systems have already been in the east and center portions of the bridge during the past five years. Thysell says, and have made periodic maintenance jobs a lot easier “simply because now people can stand on something and look under the steel, which they hadn’t been able to do before.” Also this year, Thysell continues, existing toll collection equipment will be replaced with modern computers (also costing about $500,000), and the unused toll booths on the south side of the toll plaza (one-way tolls were institutes in January, 1980) will be removed “so San Diego-bound motorists ca n drive underneath the canopy without having to dodge the things,”

In 1983 a dozen concrete “bumpers” as the water level of the stanchions (damaged by heavy rides caused by the severe winter storms of 1979 and 1980) will be repaired at a cost of about $300,000. And there is the painting. Two years ago eh bridge was placed on the continuous painting schedule that ensures all major sections will be painted once every ten to twelve years. While smaller parts more prone to corrosion will be painted as often as every one or two years. Money for all these projects will come from gasoline taxes and from any leftover revenue funds.

Daily traffic on the bridge, Thysell says is expected to increase at a rate of about six percent per year until it hits an average daily total of just under 50,000, “neither the community, nor the naval facility can get much larger.” Thysell says, “So my guess is it will hit a plateau around that point.”

Although the revenue bonds are expected to be paid off in full by the end of this decade—more than thirteen years ahead of schedule—Thysell doesn’t for see the tolls being eliminated or even reduced, “Theoretically, the bridge should go toll-free once the bonds are paid off, but from experience I’ve learned that most toll bridges never do.” Thysell says. ‘The communities they’re in always find new uses for the money; the revenues here might continue to help pay for other sorts of transportation needs in the area.”

A Caltrans pickup truck, painted bright orange, slows down as its driver sees Thysell’s frantic waving and comes to a halt on the roadside. Thysell looks in both directions and, as soon as he sees no more approaching cars, sprints across the two lanes of westbound traffic and hops aboard the truck. “I was beginning to think no one was coming by and I’d have to walk back all that way,” he says with a grin, ‘Although I have to admit, I really wouldn’t have minded.

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It’s just after nine o’clock on a chilly winter morning. Much of Coronado has been up for hours, and the toll plaza at the foot of the bridge that ties the tranquil island community to San Diego has quieted down substantially from the frantic rush a few hours before. Toll collectors, able to relax a bit as they sit in their tiny steel booths, munch on midmorning snacks and trade barbs with each other across the traffic lanes. Over on the nearby golf course, two old men interrupt their game to look east at the San Diego skyline silhouetted against a gray backdrop, the chocolate tops of the Laguna Mountains providing the panorama’s only touch of color. And H.B. (Byrd to his friends) Thysell is getting ready to walk across San Diego Bay on a four-foot-wide wire-mesh catwalk underneath the San Diego Coronado Bridge.

As Bridge manager, it’s Thysell’s job is to maintain and operate the massive structure; his duties include supervising toll collections and various maintenance functions, as well as planning for the bridge’s future needs. Once a moth he strolls along the narrow catwalk to inspect the bridge’s vital parts, looking for any structural damage that might have occurred since his was walk determining what sections, if any require maintenance. A slight man of sixty-two with tightly cropped hair, Thysell clearly loves his job, and speaks of “his” bridge with paternal affection as he walks toward his car in the administration building parking lot just west of the toll plaza. ‘It really is a beautiful bridge, a monumental bridge,” he says.

The half-mile road from the parking lot to the bridge’s physical base winds its way along the shore north and east of the toll plaza and ends up directly beneath the bridge. Thysell drives his car along the narrow, twisting road with the absent-minded ease that comes from having traveled the same route many times before. He’s been manager of the bridge for than ten years, and might justifiably view the monthly inspection tours as routine; but he doesn’t. ‘I suppose I’m a bridge buff to start with, and I like to keep abreast of what changes re going on,” he says, ‘the painting maintenance program, in which various parts of the bridge are repainted sooner than others, is a direct result of one of my walks.” After parking beside one of the bridge’s land-based stanchions, or “piers,” Thysell strides up the three flights of stairs that lead to the start of the catwalk. He unlocks a steel door at the top of the stairs, opens it and begins his two mile walk across the bay.

From the air, the San Diego Coronado bay bridge looks like a gigantic letter J. It measures 11,179 feet, just under two and a quarter miles, from Crosby Street and Logan Avenue in Sa Diego to its Coronado base at Fourth Street and Glorietta Boulevard. In the language of engineers, it’s known as an orthotropic bridge, one in which the main sections are constructed in the manner of rectangular boxes serving as the roadway. (Most conventional bridges have their roadway attached separately to the horizontal supporting structure.) Three of these boxes span the center portion of the bridge, and their combined length of 1880 feet is unmatched by any other orthotropic bridge in the world. The roadbed, a mere nine inches thick, is 243 feet above the bay at its highest point. From curb to curb it stretches across five lanes measuring twelve feet each. The concrete bridge rails are only about three feet high (so motorists can take in the view) and are constructed so that the wheels of a colliding car strike it first and the vehicle is thus hurled back onto the roadway. All of this is supported by thirty concrete towers which, in turn, are supported by concrete pilings hammered up to 160 feet into the bay.

The bridge’s sleek design is primarily the work of two architects, Steve Allen of San Francisco and Robert Mosher of La Jolla, who acted as design consultants during the bridge’s construction. (After the state built the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge in 1956, an open-trestle span Mosher describes as “so bloody ugly and awkward . . .a horrible bridge,” the state division of bay toll crossings was directed by Governor Pat Brown to hire a design consultant for all future toll-bridge constructions. “A committee of people came to San Diego and interviewed four local architects for the job, including me,” Mosher recalls. “When they came into my office, I told them from the start that I’d dedicated myself to preventing construction of the bridge. At the time my feelings were that if there was no easy access to Coronado, the rural community there would not be ruined, as was Staten Island with the construction of its bridge in the Fifties, and San Diegans would always have a charming contrast in environment experience. So these guys [the committee members] asked me why I had let them talk to me, and I told them that I was a realist, knew that Pat brown was paying off a political debt to Coronado landowners, and would get the bridge built; and that being the ease, I wanted to help design the most beautiful bridge possible. I was hired. So for the next year, Steve and I just reviewed and contributed to the ultimate design of the bridge. Steve wanted to paint his new penny copper, which he had used on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, but I knew how Coronado was against the whole project and felt it would go over much better if we painted it blue to span the bay and the sky, and the directors agreed with me.

“The design itself was relatively simple to arrive at. The cities of Coronado and San Diego wanted it to be arches (curved) so it would flow into the desired access streets; the state division of highways also wanted an arch to maintain highway speeds of sixty miles per hour; and the Navy wanted a certain amount of airplane clearance over the bay. So when they all got through telling us their requirements, we just took a pencil and drew what was built.”

The only way really to comprehend, not to mention appreciate, the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge’s beauty and simplicity of design and construction is to walk along its inner core. No one realizes this more than Byrd Thysell, and he freely admits that is one of the chief reasons why he enjoys his monthly walks. As it heads out over the bay, the catwalk—following the route of the bridge—slopes upward and to the left. Walking along it, Thysell’s view of the surrounding area is obstructed by steel girder plates that appear to hang from the roadbed on each side of the catwalk. (In truth, the plates and their connecting steel beams support the roadbed.) Every twenty feet or so he must duck in order to avoid hitting his head on the low-slung crossbeams that stretch across the catwalk from girder plate to girder plate; once or twice he forgets and issue a resounding “whoa!” But the Caltrans hard hat that’s mounted on his head like a thimble prevents him from incurring any injury. About a hundred yards over the bay, the crossbeams suddenly start to ascend and he can walk erect, although his hands still grip the catwalk’s steel pipe railing, which houses electrical cables leading to the equipment room at the center of the span. As he lets go of the railing with a quickening of his pace the wire mesh between his feet and the bay blends into a blur and, looking down, it appears he’s treading water from twenty stories up.

Watching gradually round the curve, enveloped by the mass of steel and concrete, like a mountain climber on a face of granite, it’s easy to imagine that he bridge—like a mountain—has been around forever. But as in the case with so many enormous constructions projects, the idea of the San Diego Coronado bay Bridge existed long before the actual bridge did.

A bridge connecting Coronado to San Diego was first proposed in 1926 by the J.D. and A.B. Spreckels Securities Company of San Diego, but Navy opposition (should the bridge collapse, more than one hundred navy ships would be trapped in the southern part of the harbor), along with the Spreckels growth interest in the development of downtown proper, caused the firm to abandon its plans. In the next three years, three more proposals for either a bridge or an underwater tube were made by other private firms, but none of them materialized, primarily because of little community support and continued Navy opposition.

In 1935 the Coronado City Council proposed to build its own toll crossing. A few days after the idea was made public, the San Diego Union Tribune published an editorial in opposition; it was a first in a series that continued for nearly thirty years. Titled “No Bridge,” that first editorial asserted, “there will be no bridge . . . One local citizen of a thousand—even that proportion is too high, we believe—is actually promoting the bridge. And the leading promoters . . . have something to sell, as usual. In this case they hope to sell half of San Diego for one more bridge-building job.” And at a subsequent public hearing the Navy warned that if a bridge were built, all navy ships moored south of the site would be moved to another port. Coronado withdrew its proposal, but submitted a new one a month later. Navy and public opposition continued unabated, however, and Coronado reluctantly withdrew its proposal a second time.

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By the start of the Fifties, business and government leaders on both sides of the bay were again talking about some kind of crossing. That decade saw the completion of two more feasibility studies, both of which concluded that construction of wither a bridge or a tube was physically and financially possible. The question of a crossing was also submitted to Coronado voters, who defeated the measure in 1952 and 1958 but approved it in 1955 after a ferry strike

By the end of the Fifties, momentum was clearly shifting toward the bridge’s proponents. In 1960 Coronado Mayor Robin Goodenough announced he was in favor of building a bridge and asserted that most Coronadans agreed with him. Later that year Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown gave bridge proponents their biggest boost when he authorized the state department of public works to compile a comprehensive study of nine proposed crossings—four bridge and five tube. The study was released in August, 1962 and recommended the construction of a four-lane toll bridge. Both Governor Brown and San Diego’s state senator Hugo Fisher formerly endorsed the bridge concept.

In the ensuing months, Navy opposition began to wane, though as recently as May, 1962 the navy had proclaimed it was against the bridge because “structural failure, sabotage, or disaster” could trap more than 300 vessels, including 120 active-duty ships. IN September the Navy said its worries would end if a second ocean-entry passage were channeled at the South end of the bay. The following month Navy Undersecretary Paul Fay stated that although the Navy would continue its opposition to the bridge, if one were built, the Navy would not curtail its San Diego operations, and if it felt the community really wanted the bridge, all objections would be withdrawn.

The Army Corps of Engineers completed its technical studies in early January, 1964 and announced it was ready to issue a construction permit as soon as the Navy gave its approval. Two months later the Navy formally withdrew its opposition to the bridge in a letter from Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance to Governor Brown, and a permit was issued. Former San Diego Congressman Bob Wilson, one of the bridge’s staunchest opponents, recalls his surprise a the navy’s sudden turnabout, “From a Navy standpoint, a bridge was not acceptable; I supported that position and they deserted me,” Wilson said recently, “But I think the Navy sold out to politicians on that one. They gave up their principle, which was that ships would be trapped in the harbor should the bridge collapse. Brown wanted the bridge and he got to the Kennedy/Johnson people and pressured the Navy secretary to give in. The principal however, is still valid and continues to be held by most Navy technicians. And it’s still unthinkable that in a combat situation you’re going to see very many ships in the south portion of the bay.

“You know, back then I made a promise that if they were going to go ahead and build a bridge, I’d jump off it. I haven’t forgotten that. One of these days I will.”

(As it turns out the Navy never did get its South Bay channel to the sea; and although Captain Jack Garrow, the Eleventh Naval District’s public information officer, refuses to confirm or deny the existence of contingency plans should damage to the bridge trap warships in the harbor, informed speculation suggests that in the event of such an emergency, the Navy is prepared to sue explosives to blow a channel through the Silver Strand somewhere north of Silver Strand park and South of Coronado.)

For the most part, bridge opponents—their chief ally gone—quietly resigned themselves to the fact that the bridge would, after all, be built. But both the San Diego Union and a newly elected (and decidedly antibridge) Coronado City Council continued to fight construction of the span, the former through a series of increasingly melodramatic editorials (including one in which they likened Governor Brown giving San Diego a bridge to the Trojans bringing the Romans a horse) and the latter though lots of verbal blustering and several meaningless resolutions, including one that sought to block construction of the bridge several months after work had already begun. By this time, however, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that a bridge was going to be built, and on May 14, 1964, the California Toll Bridge Authority, with Governor Brown as chairman, agreed unanimously to proceed immediately with construction.

Brown’s motivation in his ardent support of the bridge here has continued to be the subject of speculation. Many knowledgeable people, such as architect Robert Mosher and several local politicians who asked not to be named, insist he was satisfying an obligation to a group of wealthy Coronadans who had contributed heavily to Brown’s campaigns. Prominent among those mentioned has been John Alessio, who at the time owned the Hotel Del Coronado, which undeniably stood to gain from the construction of a bridge. Brown however, denies this charge. “John was a great friend of mine, but he had nothing to do with getting the bridge built,” Brown said recently. “Friendship has nothing to do with politics. I used to go to Coronado all the time and it seemed a waste to always be waiting so long for the ferry. Besides, I just believe in bridges. I put a bridge in San Mateo, I put a bridge in Richmond, I put bridges in all over the state.”

Brown does, however, take principal credit for the construction of the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge. “Without me, it wouldn’t have been built,” he says flatly. “I was the chairman of the California Toll Bridge Authority and personally appointed three of the other four members, including my lieutenant governor. When a suit was filed to block construction right before the bonds went on sale, I went ahead and did it (began Construction) anyway. I wanted to build a bridge.” The former governor also takes credit for helping to alleviate Navy opposition. “The Navy was strongly against a bridge, but I called [Robert] McNamata, the secretary of defense, and told him I, as governor, wanted it and it is shortsightedness on the part of the Navy [to oppose construction]. So he overruled the secretary of the Navy. It wasn’t easy but we did it.”

To finance the project, the Authority hoped to mix state and federal funds. After awarding contracts to various low bidders in each aspect of the bridge’s construction and determining how much it would cost to purchase the San Diego Coronado and Star Crescent ferry companies, which had to be phased out to eliminate competition with the bridge (a provision of the public bonds the state intended to sell), the Authority came up with a new figure of $47.6 million. (The major builders were the Guy F. Atkinson Company of South San Francisco, which built the superstructure and did all necessary steel work for $15.6 million. The cost of buying g out the two ferry companies was estimated at about four million dollars, which included severance pay for the firms’ several hundred employees.

The Authority’s requests for federal money were turned down, and on November 15, 1966, the state agency adopted a resolution to allow the issuance and sale of revenue bonds for the entire amount. The bonds would go on sale December 13 and be paid back from toll revenues in thirty-six years. One-way tolls were set at sixty cents for cars and $1.25 for trucks and buses; commuters could purchase booklets of twenty-five two-way coupons for $22.50. As soon as the bonds were paid off, tolls would be eliminated. And if the payments ever got ahead of schedule, tolls could be reduced. (So far, bind payments are more than thirteen years ahead of schedule but all rates have remained the same except those paid by commuters, who now only pay fourteen dollars for twenty-two way tickets.) The bonds were sold to the only bidder, an Eastern syndicate of investment firms headed by Blyth and Company, the first Boston Corporation, and Ripley incorporated. The group agreed to purchase the Class-A bonds at an interest rate of 5.24 percent, which would net them more than $90 million if the bonds were allowed mature.

On March 6th, 1967, ground was officially broken by a loader that ripped into the surface of Coronado Gold Course, which was bisected by the bridge’s construction. That same month, dredging operations deepened the south portion of the bay and used the displaced sand—all 900,000 cubic yards of it—to create twenty acres of new land to replace the section of the golf course that had been selected as the site of the bridge’s toll collection plaza.

For the reaming month of 1967 the Atkinson Company hammered nearly 500 concrete pilings into the bay floor. Once they were in place, concrete was oozed on top of them by a large tube; the resulting pedestal then provided a base for the large concrete columns that would support the bridge deck. Meanwhile, construction was underway on the toll plaza in Coronado and the access ramps to Interstate 5 in San Diego.

One of the world’s largest floating cranes, the Marine Boss, arrived in San Diego Bay in February, 1968 to begin laying into place the 285-foot steel girders, a task that continued for more than a year. By early 1969 construction engineers were busy figuring out how they would confront their most difficulty task: how to fit into place the final section of the span, a 200-ton, sixty-seven-foot-long steel ‘box.” For the next three months engineers repeatedly measured the gap between the two cantilevered arms of the nearly completed bridge, weighing the arms with one hundred tons of extra steel during the final measurements to simulate the weight of the girder, which had to fit to the quarter inch. Finally, on the morning of May 28, 1969, the Maine Boss lifted the massive box girder—its final measurements thirty-three feet wide, twenty-five feet deep, and just a fraction over sixty-seven feet long—into place in an operation that took only half an hour. To everyone’s relief, the fit was nearly perfect, and workers who had been waiting inside the superstructure immediately bolted the box into place. By noon the bridge was structurally complete—all that remained to do was pave the roadbed and paint the bridge, and the San Diego Coronado bay bridge could open officially to the public on August 2, 1969, less than a month behind schedule. The opening day celebration, attended by various local and state dignitaries such as Governor Ronald Reagan, San Diego Mayor Frank Curran, and Coronado mayor Paul Vetter (who served as master of ceremonies at the dedication), including a VIP caravan from the Hotel Del Coronado to the old ferry landing. After taking the ferry across the bay to San Diego the guest s drove back over the bridge to the hotel. A luncheon for 120 followed. “My most vivid recollection of the day is having a confrontation with the supervisor of the ferry, Sydney Dodge, for having the caravan late for the crossing,” former mayor Vetter recalls. “There was a fifteen minute delay at the landing and we had an altercation that we didn’t mention until a year ago [1981], when we shook hands and finally made up. Later at the luncheon immediately after the dedication ceremonies, Frank Curran and I exchanged the usual repartees regarding out closer ties to San Diego and the fact that we would enjoy all the benefits of proximity to a major metropolis while retaining our small town atmosphere. Then I gave him a key to our city, a small two-inch key I thought I’d surprise him with. But as soon as I did that, he turned to an aide and handed me a huge key to San Diego, ten times as big as the one I’d given him. We all laughed that the keys were proportionate to the size of our communities.”

Maintenance crews spent much of the evening cleaning up the mess that had been left by thousands of revelers on hand for celebration, and at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, August 3, the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge was officially opened to the public. First to cross the bridge was a motorcycle driven by Gordon Moore from his Beverly Hills home, as he zoomed into the toll plaza he screamed, “I made it, man!” In the next twenty-four hours, 40,000 vehicles roared across the bridge.

Opening day for the bridge, however, was also closing day for the ferry. As the last ferries, the Crown City and the San Diego, met in the middle of the bay on their final crossing just before midnight, passengers aboard both boats gathered on the decks to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” earlier in the day, James C. Haugh, president of the San Diego-Coronado Ferry Company, had been asked whether there would be any sort of festivities aboard the ferries. “There are none,” he had solemnly remarked, “As far as the company is concerned, this is no merry-making occasion; it is a sad, sad day and there will be many damp eyes among the company’s 150 employees.” At 11:54 p.m., just seven minutes before the bridge as opened to the public, the Crown City tied up at her Coronado dock for the last time, marking the end of an era in which the venerable ferries has transported more than 250 million people across San Diego bay in eighty-three years.

As it nears the center portion of the bridge’s superstructure—and of the bay—the tiny catwalk gradually levels out, and Byrd Thysell starts to slow his pace once again. He pauses to unlock a tiny, hatchlike steel door blocking his route and, as it swings open, he explains that he’s about to enter the first of the bridge’s three “boxes,” or orthotropic spans. The first and the second spans measure 660 feet in length and are situated directly above the west and center shipping channels; the third box, slightly smaller at 560 feet, sits atop the narrower east channel. Above him, the roar of traffic can be heard sharp and tinny; once he steps inside the massive box, however, it assumes an entirely different sound, richer and fuller of echo as it reverberates from top to bottom, from side to side. The catwalk continues to rest on crossbeams that span the width of the bridge, but here there is a solid panel of steel several inches beneath it instead of only sky and water. Each of the three boxes has dim overhead lighting that Thysell switches on before he enters it; otherwise the massive boxes are virtually pitch black, save for a few streams of light that find their way in through the tiny ventilation windows near each box’s end.

Just before he reaches the end of the first span, Thysell stops and, on a lark, lifts two wooden floorboards that cover up another steel hatch. Unlocking it, than pulling it open, he begins to climb down a frail looking aluminum ladder that reaches twenty feet down the stanchion to a crow’s nest. From this vantage point his view is no longer obstructed by the walls of steel, and looking to the northeast he is afforded a unique impression of the san Diego skyline: skyscrapers in varying stages of completion, the Horton Plaza construction zone, with mounds of dirt and parking lots everywhere, and there—reflected in the mirror walls of the new Columbia Centre building—an image of the bridge itself, distorted by recognizable, closer to the shore, he sees the shipyards and manufacturing plants that seem to flock around the bridge’s base like months around a candle flame.

Walking around the tiny crow’s nest, he looks to the west and sees Coronado matted against the still-foggy outline of Point Loma’s tip, the statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at the national monument is just barely visible; further north, the expensive homes of La Playa are hidden behind a screen of vegetation.

Climbing back up the ladder, Thysell hoists himself through the hatch and, as it swings shut behind him, he points out a large steel bar spanning the top section of the box grinder; similar bars span the other three walls and were installed, he says, as earthquake restrainers in the middle seventies; they’re one of several structural alterations to the bridge since it was built, and they are designed to fortify the bridge against temblors up to 8.5 on the Richter scale.

At the behest of several South Bay cities, the California Toll Bridge Authority in the late 1970s authorized the construction of ramps to and from Interstate 5 south of the bridge, and a year later construction had begun. The bridge was lengthened to accommodate an off-ramp from northbound Interstate 5 and an on-ramp for southbound Interstate 5 at a cost of three million dollars. Shortly after the start of construction, the bridge experienced its first traffic fatality when John Cerny crashed his car into a sign post at the newly built off-ramp.

Throughout the Bridge’s history, one word always seems to crop up: traffic. Traffic was way the bridge was built in the first place; the steadily growing stream of cars traveling from one side of the bay to the other was becoming more than the ferries could handle, with long lines at the ferry landings turning ten minute ferry trips into hour-long delays. Traffic is also why Coronado officials and many of the city’s residents—particularly those living near Third and Fourth streets, the only access routes to and from the bridge—were so opposed to its construction: quiet, peaceful Coronado would be invaded by an onslaught of speeders if the bridge were built. Many feel that prediction has come true. Especially during peak hours, Coronado is a divided city, with the flow of cars bisecting the town like a mobile Berlin wall. And the major issue in last November’s Coronado municipal elections was traffic, with all five city council candidates calling for state or federal assistance in solving problems through a variety of solutions, ranging from the workable (construction of a peripheral causeway around Coronado; restraining the ferry to relieve some of the bridge load and to divert north Island traffic from downtown Coronado) to the preposterous (blowing up the bridge).

The bridge’s traffic statistics illustrate why so many Coronadans’ wrath has been aroused. On the average, the ferries transported 8000 and 9000 vehicles a day to and from Coronado. During the bridge’s first year of operation, its daily average was 16,500. Today the daily average is 38,800. “I can certainly understand how come people feel, especially the long-time home owners along third and fourth streets,” says Eleanor Ring, a member of the Coronado City Council in the early Sixties and an outspoken opponent of the bridge’s construction. “All of a sudden, a quiet area is a disaster. And believe, me, there is a problem with traffic; it’s difficult even for the children to get across the highway. There have been all sorts of proposals to eliminate this problem, and I think one of the best ideas would be to build a tunnel from the bridge at North Island, which is where a lot of the traffic comes from; or at least a road that gets around the island to the amphibious base. There should be some way the traffic can go outside of Coronado—the village, we call it. It might cost a lot of money, but we didn’t want a bridge from the start. We began petitioning against it in 1951 and since then have voted ti down twice. Then along came Governor Brown, not Jerry but his father, and all of a sudden we’re out. It’s a beautiful bridge; I don’t mind it now at all. But I know people who won’t drive across it. They just don’t go to San Diego.”

Some Coronadans, however, feel the traffic problems are Coronado’s own fault. “When the state feasibility study came out in 1962, there were four different choices for a bridge, and the state was willing to listen to us before they made their final recommendations,” recalls former mayor Paul Vetter. ‘But the city council at the time didn’t take any action because it refused to acknowledge that there as even going to be a bridge. So the state, in effect, told the council, “we’ll go ahead and if you don’t make up your minds, we’ll just do it for you.’ And they did. Its unfortunate the council failed to recognize any of the potential problems when the bridge site was being decided on. Their Failure to do so caused the particular traffic problems we have today.”

By now Byrd Thysell is approaching the San Diego shore; he’s gone through the last of the three orthotropic “boxes” and is back on his wire-mesh catwalk. He pauses for a moment to look up at one of only two manholes leading from the catwalk to the median on the roadbed above. The ray of light that shines in his face when he pushes the loose-fitting round cover outward reveals that the clouds have at least partially given way to sunshine, and Thysell smiles as he asks in the glow for a moment. His smile is quickly replaced by a somber frown at the mention of bridge suicides.

‘Suicide,” he says slowly, “is an aberration that society has not yet been able to solve. Yes, there have been quite a number, but we try to play it down. If you give suicides a lot of publicity, they tend to precipitate others,”

In the predawn hours of May 3, 1973, Theodore Dummier ended his life by jumping off the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge. He thus earned the dubious distinction of being the first of nearly one hundred such people—about one per month. Although Thysell doesn’t like to admit it, the suicide rate for his bridge is very close to that of the state’s leading death ledge, the Golden Gate Bridge, which had had about 700 suicides in forty-five years—a comparison made more significant when one considers that the bridge here does not permit pedestrians, while the Golden Gate does—and higher by far than other bridges in the state that also prohibit pedestrians. The Oakland bay Bridge, for example, has only had 120 suicides in forty-six years, just a shade more than the san Diego bridge has had in less than a quarter of the time.

According to deputy county coroner max Murphy, jumping off high places is the third most common form of suicide in San Diego, right behind gunshots and poisoning (usually by barbiturates). And of the people who jump to their death, more leap off the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge than from any other structure 9even in San Francisco, the number of people who jump off the Golden Gate is second to the number of people who jump from the roofs of their own homes). Most jump off the bridge’s center span—nearly 250 feet above the water—apparently hoping for a quick painless death by drowning. But they’re in for a surprise, says Lowell Burnett, chairmen of San Diego State University’s physics department. Burnett points out that after jumping from height; a person hits the water in about four seconds. “BY that time, it [a body] is traveling at eighty-six miles per hour, and the impact is like hitting concrete,” Burnett says. ‘As a result, the most common cause of death is not drowning but internal injuries.”

“It’s quick, but it can’t be painless,” bridge manager Thysell adds. “You see people floating in the water with their clothing ripped off, their bodies twisted . . . it’s not a nice sight. Usually the harbor police will pick them up right away. But sometimes, they’ll just float . . .”

Over the years, a handful of people have survived the leap from top, including a woman who was fished out of the water alive after her first jump in the mid-Seventies, only to dive off a year later (she died in the second fall). Thysell says these cases of survival are the exceptions rather than the rule; the success rate for bridge suicides is nearly one hundred percent.

Climbing through a hatch at the east end of the catwalk, Byrd Thysell walks up a half dozen steps and finds himself in a wire cage at the start of the median, just a short distance from where the on and off ramps from Interstate 5 connect with the bridge. Scratching his head in a momentary stupor ad his eyes adjust to the bright daylight, he opens the cage door that leads into the roadbed, hops over an aluminum traffic barrier, and carefully, watching for cars, hurries along the inside lane to the foam crash rail that shields a block of concrete several yards to the west of the cage. There he sits down and, while waiting for the chance to flag down a passing Caltrans truck to take him back to Coronado, talks about future improvements planned for the bridge.

Within the next six months, he says, a $500,000 permanent steel scaffolding system will be installed in the west end of the bridge’s interior to facilitate future maintenance and repair work. Similar systems have already been in the east and center portions of the bridge during the past five years. Thysell says, and have made periodic maintenance jobs a lot easier “simply because now people can stand on something and look under the steel, which they hadn’t been able to do before.” Also this year, Thysell continues, existing toll collection equipment will be replaced with modern computers (also costing about $500,000), and the unused toll booths on the south side of the toll plaza (one-way tolls were institutes in January, 1980) will be removed “so San Diego-bound motorists ca n drive underneath the canopy without having to dodge the things,”

In 1983 a dozen concrete “bumpers” as the water level of the stanchions (damaged by heavy rides caused by the severe winter storms of 1979 and 1980) will be repaired at a cost of about $300,000. And there is the painting. Two years ago eh bridge was placed on the continuous painting schedule that ensures all major sections will be painted once every ten to twelve years. While smaller parts more prone to corrosion will be painted as often as every one or two years. Money for all these projects will come from gasoline taxes and from any leftover revenue funds.

Daily traffic on the bridge, Thysell says is expected to increase at a rate of about six percent per year until it hits an average daily total of just under 50,000, “neither the community, nor the naval facility can get much larger.” Thysell says, “So my guess is it will hit a plateau around that point.”

Although the revenue bonds are expected to be paid off in full by the end of this decade—more than thirteen years ahead of schedule—Thysell doesn’t for see the tolls being eliminated or even reduced, “Theoretically, the bridge should go toll-free once the bonds are paid off, but from experience I’ve learned that most toll bridges never do.” Thysell says. ‘The communities they’re in always find new uses for the money; the revenues here might continue to help pay for other sorts of transportation needs in the area.”

A Caltrans pickup truck, painted bright orange, slows down as its driver sees Thysell’s frantic waving and comes to a halt on the roadside. Thysell looks in both directions and, as soon as he sees no more approaching cars, sprints across the two lanes of westbound traffic and hops aboard the truck. “I was beginning to think no one was coming by and I’d have to walk back all that way,” he says with a grin, ‘Although I have to admit, I really wouldn’t have minded.

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