Biden administration allots $400 million for Golden Gate Bridge earthquake upgrades

A decades-old project to fortify the Golden Gate Bridge to withstand major earthquakes is closer to the finish line after receiving $400 million from the Biden administration.

The Federal Highway Administration announced at the end of December that it was allocating $400 million of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package approved in 2021 to complete the third and final phase of the seismic upgrades on the bridge.

Launched in the late 1990s, the project aims to allow the 2-mile span to withstand a magnitude 8.3 earthquake, an event comparable to the destructive 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"This project is as important as any transportation infrastructure project you can find in America," said Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael, who was among a delegation of Bay Area Democrats who wrote to the Biden administration in support of the funds.

"Can you imagine the calamity and the damage if a major earthquake hit and the Golden Gate Bridge was seriously damaged or destroyed?" he said. "That's the scenario you have to think about and plan for."

"The Bridge turned 85 years old this year, and this investment will ensure that the Golden Gate Bridge stands stronger than ever," bridge district General Manager Denis Mulligan said in a statement.

Plans for the seismic upgrades began in the aftermath of the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The 6.9-magnitude temblor killed more than 60 people, caused thousands of injuries and billions of dollars worth of damage.

The 15-second quake also wrought significant damage to local bridges and highways, including collapsing a section of the top deck of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Street viaduct in Oakland, which killed more than 40 people. The Golden Gate Bridge was spared and had no observable damage.

Following the quake, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District launched a retrofit project in 1997 to ensure the nearly 2-mile span could withstand an even stronger earthquake.

The agency decided to take a phased approach given the cost and retrofitted the most vulnerable sections of the bridges first, beginning with the two approaches. About $260 million in retrofit projects were completed from 2001 through 2014.

The final phase of the project will work to upgrade the 2-mile span of the suspension bridge and two main towers.

With the $400 million infusion, the estimated $879 million will be about halfway funded, according to the district's chief engineer Ewa Bauer-Furbush. The district is considering investing $174 million in bridge toll revenues toward the project in addition to $51 million already committed and potential state funding to close the funding gap.

That said, Bauer-Furbush said the project "still has quite a ways to go."

The agency plans to begin advertising for a contractor as soon as March, with construction planned to begin in 2024 and last through 2029.

"We are very much optimistic," Bauer-Furbush said, "especially about receiving this $400 million because it assures other agencies that the project is real and can be financed."

The ongoing construction of the suicide barrier on the bridge is not expected to delay the seismic upgrades, Bauer-Furbush said. The bridge district estimates the suicide barrier on either side of the main span will be completed by the end of this year.

When the seismic upgrades begin, Bauer-Furbush said bridge commuters and visitors should not experience any significant changes and that construction will appear similar to the ongoing suicide deterrent work. Partial lane closures would occur during nighttime hours only, she said.