Dan Walters: Is Bay Bridge debacle a harbinger?
05/21/2013 12:00 AM
05/21/2013 8:09 AM
Jerry Brown did one of his characteristic political pirouettes Monday.
For months, the governor had dismissed revelations in The Bee about shoddy construction and inspection practices on the grandiose, long overdue and massively over-budget project to replace the eastern portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
He and his minions had disparaged The Bee and its investigative reporter, Charles Piller, and just days earlier, Brown had replied "s--- happens" to a reporter's question about the bridge.
Brown took some heat for implying that he was not concerned about bridge safety, and when the question arose again on Monday, as Brown visited UC Berkeley to address political science graduates, he responded more maturely.
"First," he said, "we want to make it safe," adding that it's now not certain that the bridge segment will open on Labor Day weekend with a very splashy, very expensive celebration.
Not that there really is anything to celebrate. Even if there hadn't been revelations in The Bee about shoddy design and workmanship – most recently corrosion of tendons and failure of critical bolts – the bridge is a decade-plus overdue and its cost is more than four times the original estimate.
From the onset – when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake revealed that the eastern span of the bridge was doomed to fail – the project has been a nightmare.
More than two decades ago, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson proposed a concrete viaduct replacement that could be built quickly and cheaply. But nothing so ordinary was acceptable in a region with an elevated sense of its own specialness, so politicians spent a decade squabbling over the design.
Eventually, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission settled on a compromise – a soaring suspension span tied to a single massive pylon and attached to a viaduct on the eastern approach.
Even so, more years of controversy ensued with Brown, then the mayor of Oakland, complaining long and loudly. "The recommended design – half of a suspension bridge attached to a bland viaduct – speaks of mediocrity, not greatness," Brown lamented. He and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown tried to force changes, but eventually, Wilson's successor, Democrat Gray Davis, decided to stick with the design.
"I have two needs," Davis said, "that the bridge be safe and it be cost-effective."
With costs soaring from the billion-dollar viaduct that Wilson wanted, and the $1.5 billion original estimate for the final design to well over $6 billion, cost-effectiveness is no longer a valid claim. And whether it's safe is an open question.
One must wonder, too, whether the Bay Bridge debacle is a harbinger of what could happen on the much-bigger bullet train and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel projects that Brown so ardently seeks.
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