Interstate 980 and the Elusive Southern Crossing

By Dennis Evanosky--Interstate 980 carries traffic on the southern end of the Grove Shafter Freeway. On the north, the freeway connects to Highway 24 at Interstate 580; on the south it joins Interstate 880 at Jackson Street.  

This interstate began life in 1947 as part of Legislative Route 226. The state of California added the route to its freeway and expressway system in 1959. By then the state envisioned a road that would carry traffic from State Route 17 (today’s Interstate 880) to the tunnel. Five years later, in 1964, California renumbered the proposed thoroughfare as State Route 24. That same year the Caldecott Tunnel’s third bore opened, placing plans for State Route 24 on the fast track.

However, planners conceived today’s Interstate 980 as much more than a connection to the Caldecott Tunnel. If all had gone according to plan, this freeway would have served as the East Bay connector to a second Bay Bridge—the Southern Crossing.

The bridge would have begun in the East Bay from either Alameda’s Bay Farm Island or that city’s Webster Street. Had it gone according to plan, the Southern Crossing would have carried traffic into San Francisco at a point near today’s Third Street at Army Street—known today as Cesar Chavez Street. In 1972, the state of California placed a proposal to build the Southern Crossing before voters in San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Mateo counties. Voters said “no” by more than a three-to-one margin.

By then, however, Caltrans had acquired more than 40 acres in the string of blocks between Brush and Castro streets. Workers had partially cleared the property of houses and businesses. The state had to do something, and planners repackaged the thoroughfare as the salvation of downtown Oakland.

Neighbors and activists didn’t buy it. In 1972, the same year the voters nixed the Southern Crossing, they sued Caltrans. The lawsuit brought construction of Highway 24 south of the Eastshore Freeway (today’s Interstate 580) to a halt. The suit claimed that the state was not providing adequate housing to replace the homes it had condemned to make room to build the freeway.

Caltrans settled the lawsuit by agreeing to not only build replacement housing, but to preserve four historic homes and a Greek Orthodox Church that lay in the freeway’s path. This latter promise gave rise to today’s Preservation Park, which lies next to Interstate 980 at 13th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way (the former Grove Street and the Grove in the Grove-Shafter Freeway.)

The court also required the completion of an environmental impact report, which consultants completed in 1976. Gov. Jerry Brown brought into the idea that the completion of Interstate 980 was essential to the revitalization of downtown Oakland and ordered Caltrans to begin construction.

Complaints from minority contractors compounded Caltrans’ problems and brought Brown’s plans to a halt. In April 1979, the state suspended construction of the freeway because the project did not employ enough minority subcontractors.

With lawsuits and complaints finally settled, freeway construction started again in 1981. Caltrans tapped into federal money to complete the project. For this reason, the state renumbered the highway as an Interstate, giving it the number 980. Caltrans finally completed this connection to Highway 24 and Interstate 880 on March 6, 1985, and traffic began flowing on Interstate 980.

Four years later, on October 17, 1989, Interstate 980 proved its worth. The Loma Prieta Earthquake struck that day during the Tuesday evening rush hour. The temblor pancaked the upper tier of the Cypress Structure—part of Interstate 880—onto the lower tier, killing 42 people.

This catastrophe closed Interstate 880 west of Broadway in Oakland, cutting off an important route from Oakland to the Bay Bridge. This thoroughfare did not carry traffic again until July 23, 1997, when a new, rerouted Interstate 880 reopened. For seven years and nine months, Interstate 980 carried that traffic.

Now, almost twenty years later, many have forgotten the important role that this Interstate played after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Some are calling for the freeway’s removal. A group called “ConnectOakland” is proposing to remove the freeway and replace it with a boulevard, similar to Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco. Critics also point out that Interstate 980 forms an unwanted barrier between West Oakland and downtown.

In an East Bay Times article, Downtown Oakland Association Executive Director Steve Snider compared Interstate 980 to a “huge moat,” which he said disrupted the flow of foot traffic to downtown businesses. “Anything we can do to sew back the urban fabric would be a good thing,” Snider told Times journalist Erin Baldassari.

BART has cast its eye on the freeway corridor as well. It has set aside money to study locations for a second tube to carry passengers under San Francisco Bay. The earth beneath ConnectOakland’s proposed boulevard is high on BART’s list.

Mayor Libby Schaaf has also weighed in. John King writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that in her 2015 State of the City address, Schaaf requested $5.2 million from the Alameda County Transportation Authority. The authority would earmark this money for planning studies of an I-980 conversion and a second BART tube.

“1971 Southern Crossing”

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Courtesy of the State of California

The planned Southern Crossing would have connected Alameda with San Francisco as shown in this 1971 map. Voters nixed the idea in 1972.

“1978 map”

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Courtesy of Alamedainfo.com

This 1978 map depicts Interstate 980’s abrupt ending at Nineteenth Street in Oakland. A lawsuit and minority hiring complaints halted construction of what became Interstate 980 from 1972 to 1981.

“Cypress Structure”

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Courtesy of H.G. Wilshire, U.S. Geological Survey

The Loma Prieta Earthquake collapsed the Cypress Freeway on October 17, 1989. Interstate 980 proved its worth, carrying traffic to Interstate 580 and the Bay Bridge for the next seven-plus years.