New Narrows bridge finally opens

New Narrows bridge finally opens »Play Video
TACOMA, Wash. - A five-year wait is over as the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened to traffic Monday morning.

At 4:01 a.m., the first customer with the automated "Good To Go!" toll pass paid $1.75 to cross the new eastbound SR-16 bridge. Two minutes later, a limousine driver paid the first $3 manual toll.

The Department of Transportation said over the next 70 minutes, the received 1,621 toll payments via both methods, with 68 percent coming from the new electronic Good To Go! system.

The party started Sunday morning as thousands turned out for the opening day festivities.

It began with a five-kilometer run and walk across the bridge by more than 10,000 participants. Then state Treasurer Mike Murphy and House Speaker Frank Chopp paid the first toll and crossed the bridge in a 1923 Lincoln Touring Car, the first to cross the original bridges built in 1940 and 1950.

The deck was later opened to pedestrians to stroll across the bridge, which was opened to motor vehicles early Monday morning.

Officials estimated that 50,000 showed up to see the new bridge, based on the number of people who rode nearly five dozen buses that shuttled people from three locations, said Melanie Coon, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

The new 5,400-foot span, parallel and south of the old bridge, is the longest suspension bridge built in the United States since the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was opened in New York in 1964.

The original Tacoma Narrows bridge, dubbed Galloping Gertie, was the world's third-longest suspension bridge when it was opened on July 1, 1940. It disintegrated in a windstorm about four months later, "the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history," according to the Transportation Department's Web site.

A 5,979-foot replacement span that was opened on Oct. 14, 1950, is now the nation's fifth-longest suspension bridge. It was designed to carry 60,000 vehicles a day but now averages more than 90,000, the department said.

Tolls on the new bridge - which connects Tacoma, about 30 miles south of Seattle, with the Kitsap peninsula to the west - are $3 for eastbound motorists who stop at toll booths and $1.75 for those using an electronic payment system.

Officials say more than 100,000 "Good to Go!" toll transponders have been issued, more than twice as many electronic payment accounts as had been expected, said Gregory A. Selstead, the department's director of tolling operations.

An international team of engineers and craftsmen worked on the $700 million bridge.

Most of the steel and all the cable-spinning equipment came from Japan. The deck was built in South Korea and hauled to Tacoma on Dutch ships. The 19,000 miles of wire inside the main cables was manufactured in South Korea, China and England.

By the time contracts for the new bridge were being negotiated in 2000, the U.S. steel industry had imploded and steel-making - along with expertise in building suspension bridges - had moved to Asia.

Of the 10 longest suspension bridge spans built in the world since 1996, eight are in China or Japan. The world's longest is Japan's $5 billion Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, which has a main span of 6,529 feet - more than twice as long as the Tacoma Narrow's 2,800-foot main span, the section between the two 510-foot towers.

Most of the engineering and design for the new bridge was done by New York-based Parson's Transportation Group, but detailed engineering and field work and all the spinning and cable-wrapping equipment was provided by NSKB, a joint venture between the Japanese construction giants Nippon Steel Corp. and Kawada Industries Inc.

All told, construction companies logged more than 3.5 million hours working on the bridge with only three injuries serious enough to keep workers off the job the following day.

The bridge's new toll

Starting Monday, all eastbound drivers will be charged a $3 toll for usage of the bridge.

Drivers who choose to pay cash will pay at a toll plaza on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge.

Drivers can also opt to use the prepaid "Good to Go!" system, which uses a microchip sensor placed on the vehicle windshield. The sensor automatically notes the crossing, then bills the driver's account, eliminating the need to stop and pay at the toll plaza.

Under the Good to Go! system, drivers are also charged a slightly discounted rate of $1.75 instead of $3.

Officials say more than 100,000 "Good to Go!" toll transponders have been issued to motorists. That's more than twice the number of people who were initially expected to sign up for electronic payment accounts, said Greg Selstead, the state Department of Transportation's director of tolling operations.

To find out more about the Good to Go! system, visit the state Department of Transporation's Web site.

Investigators to use toll system as a tool

Vehicles using the new Tacoma Narrows bridge will leave an electronic record that will be open to criminal investigators and by court order for 8½ years, program officials have confirmed.

Each time an eastbound vehicle equipped with a Good to Go automatic toll transponder uses the new span that opens next month on State Route 16, a series of cameras will snap 24 photographs and a record will be entered by computer of the date and time.

The images will be deleted once an automatic computer check shows there is enough money in a prepaid account to cover the toll - $1.75 for cars using the automated system, compared with $3 at tollbooths - but the state Transportation Department will save information on each individual crossing, program spokeswoman Janet Lynn Matkin said.

Under state law, the data may be released only to motorists seeking their own toll and crossing records and to law enforcement investigators and lawyers in civil cases who obtain a court order, Matkin said.

For Washington state, it's "completely new territory," said William E. Covington, an assistant professor who teaches technology law and public policy at the University of Washington School of Law. "There are a huge number of unknowns."

For example, he said, detectives could use toll information to track people under investigation in criminal cases, employers could obtain information to use against an employee in a lawsuit and one spouse could get data to use against the other in a divorce or custody battle.

"It's another tool if the need arises, which would be very rarely," Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said.

Similar restrictions apply to the FasTrak program in use on eight bridges used by millions of motorists in the San Francisco Bay area, and individual motorist information has been released 17 times in the past two years, mostly to law enforcement agencies, said Rod McMillan, the program's director of bridge operations and oversight.

In one case, an Oakland lawyer told the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times he used toll data to "refute claims by a client's wife that she worked often from home - an issue in a dispute over visitation rights."

FasTrak drivers are notified when their information is requested, McMillan said.

"That customer can then go to court himself or herself and try to quash that subpoena," McMillan said. "We want to give that customer an opportunity to protect his or her privacy."

Drivers can avoid being tracked through the Good to Go program by obtaining an unregistered pass, paying with cash rather than with a credit card or using a numbered bank account to avoid having the transponder linked to a name, license plate or financial information, Matkin said.

Vehicles quipped with those transponders will still be photographed but the information would be untraceable for lack of any link to ownership, license number or bank account, she explained.

To date only a handful of drivers have obtained an unregistered transponder, Matkin said.