RIO VISTA — Steve Esperson sat in a concrete building in the middle of the Rio Vista Bridge and looked out a window at boats traveling along the Sacramento River below.
“I’ve got a million-dollar view from here,” he said.
If a boat is tall enough, Esperson pushes the buttons and flips the switches on two metal control panels that are more than 50 years old. Red lights flash and a crossing arm drops to stop traffic. Motors in the two bridge towers come to life, powering cables that haul a middle, 300-foot-long section of the bridge high into the air.
Solano County isn’t famous for its drawbridges. Yet it has three – the Rio Vista Bridge, the Mare Island Causeway and the Union Pacific railroad bridge over the Carquinez Strait – that are impressive in size.
The Rio Vista Bridge was completed in 1960 at a cost of $4 million, replacing an earlier drawbridge built in 1919. It takes Highway 12 traffic over the Sacramento River, about 21,000 vehicles daily. Highway 12 links the Central Valley in the Stockton/Lodi area with the Bay Area.
Solano County transportation officials are looking at ways to replace the Rio Vista Bridge, in part because raising the drawbridge for river traffic backs up traffic on busy Highway 12. They want a high, arching bridge such as the Antioch Bridge with plenty of room for boats, or perhaps even a tunnel under the Sacramento River.
But no money is available for a project that could top $1 billion. For the foreseeable future, remaining on the job will be the 1960 bridge named shortly after its opening as “the most beautiful steel bridge” by the American Institute of Steel Construction.
Fifty-four years old? Make that 54 years young.
“It works great,” Esperson said.
Esperson is among the 17 bridge tenders for drawbridges operated by the state Department of Transportation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, 10 of whom work full-time and seven of whom are on call. He’s worked on the Three Mile Slough bridge, the Potato Slough bridge, the Mokelumne River bridge.
“The personality of a bridge tender has to be somewhat of a loner type person, who spends a large amount of time alone and it doesn’t bother him,” Esperson said.
He’s working the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift this particular day. Day or night, sun or rain, someone is inside that concrete office in the middle of the bridge, ready to operate the drawbridge equipment.
“Anytime – 24 hours,” Esperson said.
The Rio Vista Bridge roadway is only as high as the levee on the Sacramento River’s eastern bank. Boats had 18 feet of clearance between the river and the bottom of the bridge on this recent morning at a higher tide.
That’s certainly not enough room for the cargo ships periodically heading to and from the Port of Sacramento. They carry rice, fertilizer and other products. Esperson has seen them hauling blades and towers for the giant, white wind turbines that are frequently being built in the Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista.
If one of those big ships is coming, it contacts the bridge tender while it is still some distance away. Esperson said it can take about 15 minutes between raising the bridge, allowing the ship to pass and lowering the bridge.
But the Rio Vista Bridge doesn’t even have enough clearance for many a sailboat. A sailboat might cause the drawbridge to go up for about five minutes.
All of this can make for some busy days for the bridge tender, though on this recent morning the bridge didn’t have to rise at all. Most of the calls for boaters that could be heard on a radio were for the raising of Three Mile Slough bridge visible in the distance.
The Rio Vista Bridge rises about 56 times during a winter month and more than 300 times during a summer month, when recreational boaters are out, according to a 2010 report by the consulting firm Aecom.
But the drawbridge has historically been even busier. It got raised as many as 780 times during a peak month soon after it got built, the May 1960 edition of California Highway and Public Works said.
Esperson grew up in Rio Vista. He recalled as a 9-year-old standing on the banks of the Sacramento River and looking at damage caused by a ship that hit the Rio Vista Bridge. The Italian freighter Ilice on Jan. 15, 1967, had aimed for the drawbridge section that had been raised, but missed amid the fog.
The bridge came out in worse shape than the ship. The Ilice continued on its journey within a matter of hours. The bridge suffered an estimated $600,000 in damage along a 140-foot section and was closed for three weeks.
“I saw it the next day,” Esperson said. “The road was literally hanging down into the water.”
He became a bridge tender about 25 years ago. It was one of the better job opportunities available in the city, he said.
On a busy day, a bridge tender has plenty to do. Esperson recalled the time on the Three Mile Slough Bridge, when he had to raise the drawbridge 34 times during his shift.
The 1960 Rio Vista Bridge was a long time coming. The eastern portion of 1,300 feet was completed in 1949 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1950 approved building the final portion of the new span. But it took almost a decade to get the money and complete the job.
“Modern Lift Structure Spans Lower Sacramento” read the headline over that May 1960 California Highway and Public Works article.
Fifty-four years later, the Rio Vista Bridge no longer qualifies as modern. But it is still on the job.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.