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A Bridge Too Far 

Is it your fault that the seismic retrofit of the Bay Bridge will be years late, billions over budget, and uglier than ever? Maybe.

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
It's been 15 years since the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which connects Yerba Buena Island to Oakland, was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake, but the political boondoggle over rebuilding and retrofitting the damaged section drags on. Last month, the Schwarzenegger administration proposed scrapping the design initially approved in 1997 -- which called for the world's first single-tower, self-anchored suspension span -- because it was too expensive and impractical. Instead, even though construction has already begun on the suspension tower, state officials suggested reverting to a plain, flat viaduct, which Bay Area lawmakers famously derided as "a freeway on stilts" during the late 1990s. But California's economy has changed since then, and state officials first began souring on the suspension tower design when they received only one bid to build it -- at a cost of $1.4 billion, more than twice what the Legislature had earmarked. Schwarzenegger, angered by the delays and what he sees as purely aesthetic concerns, wants the Bay Area to foot most of the bill, but in response, local lawmakers are holding hearings this week in Sacramento to investigate the governor's sudden shift and whether various state agencies covered up what they knew about the fiscal overruns. Are you an apologist for the delayed Bay Bridge Seismic Retrofit Project? Take our quiz and find out!

1) A state audit released in December placed much of the blame for the project's delay on the California Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for seismic retrofits throughout the state. Noting that the bridge budget had soared from $1.3 billion in 1997 to $2.6 billion in 2001 (when state funds were approved) to $5.1 billion this year, auditors blasted Caltrans for hiding costs, underestimating construction expenses, and failing to disclose fiscal problems to lawmakers. What's your opinion of the report?

A) Let me get this straight: I'm supposed to drive over a bridge built by a bunch of people who didn't notice that the cost had increased by a few billion dollars? Thanks, but I'll stick to BART.

B) A Caltrans delay, huh? Who'd'a thunk?

C) Oh, well. Glad we cleared that up. Back to the drawing board!

2) Much of the debate surrounding the bridge has centered on which design is more striking and suitable: a suspension tower, with support cables rising 500 feet into the air from the bridge's deck, or a simple viaduct, with pillars beneath the bridge sinking into the ocean floor. Schwarzenegger's last-minute switch to the simpler skyway design would save about $400 million, state officials say, and could still be completed by the current target date of 2012. Which bridge design do you prefer?

A) Um ... the kind that doesn't crumble.

B) You know, it's funny. At first I was really enamored with the single-tower suspension plan, but then I started thinking about the viaduct, now I'm kinda going back and forth between the two ...

C) The design that's most beautiful, of course.

3) Since taking office, Gov. Schwarzenegger has been vehement in his insistence that Bay Area residents and lawmakers be held responsible for the project's delays, and his new proposal would use bridge tolls -- not state funds -- to pay for skyrocketing construction costs. Indeed, the governor's spokesman, Rob Stutzman, told the Contra Costa Times in August that the Great Wall of China was built in 10 years, "... yet the Bay Area continues not to be able to build itself a new bridge." How do you respond?

A) Fine, I admit it: It's all my fault.

B) Isn't the Great Wall of China kind of an unfair comparison?

C) Hmm ... seems like I remember a little film called T3: Rise of the Machines going a tad over budget as well. Here's hoping the bridge turns out better than that.

4) Officials in the Schwarzenegger administration have discussed raising the bridge toll as high as $5, which they say would pay for at least 80 percent of the project's overrun costs. But as Steve Kinsey, chairman of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, told the Los Angeles Times: "Bay Area residents have ponied up $2.1 billion in bridge toll money [to pay for the more aesthetic bridge], and now we're being told we're going to get stuck with the same old oatmeal design." Would you pay a $5 toll to cross the bridge?

A) Not if it's made out of oatmeal.

B) Absolutely. It makes total sense that hardworking taxpayers should have to spend more money because elected officials took too long to build an uglier bridge.

C) Look, what's most important here is that government agencies throughout the state and the Bay Area learn to compromise and work together to build the safest, most cost-effective structure they can. I mean, this isn't the time to burn our bridges. Ha-ha -- get it? "Burn bridges"? Ha-ha ... (Bonus point for putting yourself out of your own misery.)

5) Which of the following quotations from state officials do you think best sums up the problems facing the Bay Bridge retrofit project?

A) Sunne Wright McPeak, state secretary of Housing, Business and Transportation, which oversees Caltrans: "There is not consensus among the experts as to the best choice for completing the bridge." (Bonus point for noting that she said this last month.)

B) Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo, in February 2004: "Any delay will be minimal. We're looking at a few weeks more of process, nothing more than that."

C) Jeremiah Hallisey, a state Transportation Commission member from San Francisco, in December 2004: "It's a Soviet-style bridge, and it's going to result in an aesthetic Chernobyl."

6) Who, in your mind, is ultimately to blame for the failures in planning, construction, and fiscal accountability that have curtailed the project?

A) The state.

B) The Bay Area.

C) Terrorists.

7) Finally, are you optimistic that Schwarzenegger's push for a new, simpler design will mean the bridge project finally gets on track? Or do you agree with Kinsey of the Bay Area MTC, who said: "Even a great actor can't stand there with a straight face and say they can get that done in the same amount of time."

A) Well, I don't agree with the "great actor" remark. Did this guy see End of Days?

B) Are you kidding? They'll have BART in Marin before this thing gets finished.

C) Wait a minute, this is the side of the bridge that you see from Oakland? Oh ... well, in that case, what's all the fuss about?

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: Look on the bright side: Those legislative hearings this week are sure to clear things up!

7-10 points: Hey, no matter which design they pick, it's still gonna take you two hours to cross during rush hour.

11-14 points: No, I'm sure it's not too late to suggest painting it orange ... .

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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