SAN FRANCISCO — Clear weather and new hopes that the Bay Bridge may reopen in three weeks took some pain out of Bay Area commuting Wednesday, while Congress sent a $3.45-billion aid package to President Bush and Santa Cruz merchants were let back in to their devastated downtown for the first time to retrieve cash registers and merchandise.
Officials refining the toll from last week's 7.1-magnitude quake also nearly doubled the number of people displaced from their homes, to 13,892. At least 9,500 are in Santa Cruz County, where scores of mountain homes were destroyed and the downtown sections of Santa Cruz and Watsonville were irretrievably altered.
Bush said he would sign the record relief package, rushed through Congress with unusual haste Wednesday.
"This is a tremendous amount of good will," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) told his House colleagues. "We thank all of you."
In Sacramento, Gov. George Deukmejian ordered the immediate release of $117 million in state money to help local officials pay for quake repairs and aid for victims.
In the San Francisco area, adjusting of public habits was given the credit for the remarkably smooth morning and evening commutes this week. The main driving links into downtown San Francisco have been severed, but traffic has kept moving.
Many people have found a way to avoid daily commuting, perhaps through the use of computers or by arrangement with their employers, state traffic surveys have found.
"If I had to make a guess right now, as to how many people are staying home or doing something else--such as staying in hotels--I'd say it was well above 5,000," said George Gray, Caltrans deputy director for planning and public transportation, at a briefing Wednesday.
About 70,000 commuters used the Bay Bridge during rush hours before the quake, which forced closure of the bridge and shut down the Embarcadero and Central freeways and Interstate 280 in downtown San Francisco. Across the bay, the Nimitz Freeway was closed in Oakland by the collapse of the elevated, double-decked Cypress section.
But many thousands have crowded onto the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which set new records in ridership, and onto expanded trans-bay ferry service. Others have elected to leave the house earlier and travel by other bridges into the city.
Caltrans officials also sounded new optimism Wednesday that the damaged 50-foot section of the Bay Bridge will be repaired and ready for use by Nov. 17--a month after the quake.
"The work is going very well and the worst of it is done," said Jerry C. Hauke, a Caltrans senior engineer. "At first I said that a Nov. 17 reopening was 'optimistic.' Now we can say it's 'realistic.' "
Would the work guarantee that the bridge would withstand another severe earthquake? "There are no absolutes in life," Hauke replied. "It's your choice whether to get on an airplane or whether to use our freeways. . . . There are no guarantees."
Hauke also said that remedial work on the other closed freeway sections would be far enough along to allow reopening by February. But it will be a political decision whether to reopen the freeways or have them undergo more extensive retrofitting.
"These are the city's lifelines," Hauke said. "It's going to be a tough call."
Back to Normal
Traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge moved closer to the more normal pattern as the week goes on. Many motorists are still making their commutes before 5 a.m., but now many are also leaving home at their normal times.
"They anticipated, like we did, that there would be a real crunch on Monday morning," said bridge district spokesman Bruce Selby. "Well, the crunch never came, and we're slowly getting back to more conventional commute hours. . . . People now are saying, 'what the heck? We can sleep in later.' "
Starting today, the $2 toll will no longer be suspended--except for car pools during rush hours. The change in policy may slow traffic somewhat today, officials said.
Morning rush-hour traffic on three other bay crossing options--the Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges--has also increased from a pre-quake average of 34,300 vehicles to 41,727 during the same period Wednesday.
There has been a steady increase in the use of ferries, but officials remain disappointed that the boats are still far short of being filled to capacity. Ferry use was up 25% Wednesday morning, but the boats are generally crossing the bay half-filled.
Ridership also increased on Caltrain, the train service on the San Francisco Peninsula, from a pre-quake average of 3,560 to 4,607 during the morning peak hours Wednesday. Seventy of those patrons took advantage of new service from Salinas to San Francisco.
BART patronage, meanwhile, continued to grow. The system, now offering 24-hour service, served more than 300,000 people on Tuesday, eclipsing a record 290,000 set on Monday.