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The Bay Area Bridge That Time Forgot

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake brought down a chunk of the upper deck of the Oakland-Bay Bridge onto the lower deck. Anamafi Moala Kalushia, 23, of Berkeley died. Twenty years later, some 280,000 cars use the bridge daily -- and it still isn't safe.

In that time, Iraq has been in two wars and replaced bombed bridges over the Tigris River twice. In little more than a year, Minneapolis rebuilt a bridge that collapsed and killed 13 in 2007. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake destroyed freeway overpasses in Southern California, GOP Gov. Pete Wilson had the two Santa Monica Freeway bridges restored within 84 days.

The construction of the east span of the Bay Bridge, however, is not expected to be finished until 2013. Granted, the above projects were smaller. Then again, it only took three-and-a-half years to construct the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Why is it taking so long? Engineers continued seismic work on the bridge after it reopened. Then in 1996, experts concluded that it made more sense to build a new east span than to retrofit a structure anchored atop Douglas firs when it was built in the 1930s.

In 1997, Wilson suggested a simple single-level viaduct from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island as a cheap and fast way to build a bridge before the next big quake.

Bay Area pols bristled at the notion of a plain-Jane span. In a Chronicle opinion piece, then-Oakland Mayor-elect Jerry Brown advocated for "a spectacular structure that expresses the daring of human ingenuity and symbolizes the splendor of Oakland and the East Bay."

If Brown and his ilk had been in a hurry -- because a big earthquake could end hundreds of lives within minutes, destroy the span and ruin local commerce for months thereafter -- you might understand their push for a more, well, phallic bridge design.

In San Francisco, Mayor Willie Brown stalled the works as he tried to re-route the new span lest it interfere with his construction plans for Yerba Buena Island -- and he got the U.S. Navy to play along.

Did voters complain? Au contraire, in 1998 voters in Emeryville, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco approved (thankfully) nonbinding ballot measures supporting a redesign of the Bay Bridge to include a rail system. In that there were no plans to rebuild the western span, a rail scheme would have required removing four lanes of traffic and delayed the project.

I should note that area pols delivered on this much -- a bike path that will allow East Bay bikers to pedal part way to San Francisco.

With the help of the Clinton administration, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis managed to end Willie Brown's delaying tactics in 2000. "Like everyone else, I wanted an aesthetically attractive bridge," Davis told me, "but I felt a sense of urgency."

Meanwhile, cost projections for the span have soared from $1.4 billion in 1998 to $6.3 billion today. You see, during the years of doing nothing here, building booms in Asia drove up the cost of steel. No surprise, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is considering another toll increase.

Gov. Wilson opined, "It could have been finished a long time ago." But as then-Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean said, "We don't need to rush."

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