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Politics, Engineering Intersect Over Bay Bridge

September 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Political wrangling can often get in the way of critical infrastructure improvements Case in point: The rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Spencer Michels reports.

JIM LEHRER: The intersection of politics and engineering in San Francisco Bay. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: For years, engineers and politicians have planned and fought over how to fix the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay Bridge. Now, workers are finally building a new bridge alongside the old one on the Oakland side of the bay. The old bridge will eventually be torn down.

Recently, traffic was shut off for five days to replace a section of roadway. It was a milestone in the enormous $6 billion and much-delayed project, a project that casts a spotlight on how gridlock politics impacts not just state budgets, but important infrastructure, as well.

The 70-year-old span is just one of 72,000 American bridges awaiting repairs. Two hundred and eighty thousand commuters cross the bridge every day, frustrated at how long it’s taking to build a new eastern span.

When it was constructed in the 1930s, the Bay Bridge was the most expensive structure ever built by man, costing $77 million. And it was an engineering marvel that took just three years to build. It opened in 1936 to national acclaim.

MOVIE NARRATOR: A six-lane double-deck bridge, eight miles long, spanning the largest major navigable body of water ever bridged.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fifty-three years later, in 1989, the powerful Loma Prieta earthquake, centered 60 miles away, shook the Bay Area, knocking down houses, starting fires, and dramatically rupturing a part of the Bay Bridge near Oakland, swallowing two cars, killing one motorist, and closing the span to traffic.

That came as a shock to officials like Bart Ney, an urban planner and spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans.

BART NEY, spokesman, Caltrans: We did believe that the structures were robust and would be able to withstand massive earthquakes, and we were wrong about that.

SPENCER MICHELS: The collapse caused fears that another quake, a bigger one, could have devastating effects unless major changes were made.

Under public pressure, damaged bridges and freeways are often repaired in record time. The Bay Bridge was fully up and running within two months. But a permanent fix can take a little longer. So far, it’s been 20 years.

During that time, engineers, local and state officials, the press and the public studied the bridge and battled over what to do.

Debating the bridge's design

BART NEY: When we started this job, we brought forth just a basic concrete viaduct to make this replacement on the east span of the Bay Bridge. We're engineers. A to B sounded good to us, but the community really stepped up and said that they wanted something more at this juncture.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Franciscans are intoxicated with their area's beauty. With the majestic Golden Gate Bridge just a few miles away, the western span of the Bay Bridge a handsome double-deck suspension structure, local politicians pushed for a brand-new, eye-catching bridge rather than trying to repair the vulnerable eastern span.

Leading the charge was Willie Brown, former legislative leader who was mayor of San Francisco at the time.

WILLIE BROWN, Former San Francisco Mayor: You certainly don't want what you have on the eastern side of the span. It's horrible to continuously look at. I don't even know how they got away with building that part of the span so unaesthetically attractive and building the west side of the span so aesthetically attractive.

SPENCER MICHELS: Steve Heminger, executive director of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, says the fights were intense.

STEVE HEMINGER, Metropolitan Transportation Commission: We fought about the design of the bridge, we fought about whether the bridge should have a bicycle or pedestrian path, we fought about where the bridge should go, we fought about whether there ought to be train tracks on the new bridge.

SPENCER MICHELS: The fighting brought delays, which, as prices increased, helped raise the cost of the span by billions, partly paid for, after another fight, by increased tolls.

STEVE HEMINGER: What was originally a limited objective, which was to build a new span that would be seismically strong, grew into a monstrosity where every interest group under the sun tried to glom onto the project and achieve their objective. They all got in the way of getting this project done sooner.

SPENCER MICHELS: Seventeen years after the earthquake, the state finally opened bids on a costly new design, which does not add any increased capacity for the crowded bridge. It does, however, include a soaring tower near the island in the middle of the bay.

The new bridge between Oakland and the island will employ a little-used engineering technique to anchor the suspension cables, not into rock or concrete piers, but into the bridge deck itself. That requires construction of expensive temporary bridge decks, which will be torn down in four years, says Mark Ketchum, a structural engineer and Caltrans adviser.

MARK KETCHUM, structural engineer: One reason it's costing money and taking a long time to build is because we need to build one bridge to carry the temporary weight of the new bridge while it's under construction and then tear down the first bridge. So from a structural engineering perspective, one could argue we're building two bridges to wind up with one.

SPENCER MICHELS: The high cost, approved during a strong economy, Ketchum says, may well curtail other important infrastructure projects since there is less money available today.

MARK KETCHUM: If we spend a lot of money on a project like this, it leaves less money in the pot for other projects.

Political gridlock

SPENCER MICHELS: According to Willie Brown, the expense and delay in getting to the new design was inevitable. Politically active Bay Area residents pushed for change, but at the state level, reaching consensus on design and costs was difficult.

WILLIE BROWN: It's almost impossible at the state level to do what you can do at a city level. At a city level, you actually can say, "By this date, we're going to start," and we actually start. At the state level, you've got a state legislative body. You've got the governor. You've got the infrastructure, political types, made up of Caltrans and others, and they kind of work at their own pace.

STEVE HEMINGER: No one wants a dictator. No one wants a governor who can say, "This is the bridge design. And whether you like it or not, this is what you're going to get." No one wants that.

But I don't think anybody in their right mind can argue that 20 years after an earthquake and still being four years away from a new bridge is a good result, either.

SPENCER MICHELS: Heminger says other parts of the nation's infrastructure are being delayed, as well.

STEVE HEMINGER: California probably is an extreme case, but we're not alone. There are examples all across the country of projects that take years, decades. Some of them take generations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Now that this project is on its way, even most critics agree that the new bridge will be stronger than the old, which was the original bottom line in design.

BART NEY: After a major earthquake -- and what we're taking about here is the largest potential earthquake that would happen within 1,500 years -- the structure would not only continue to stand, but would serve the public immediately after the quake.

SPENCER MICHELS: That's if a massive earthquake doesn't hit before the new bridge is finished in 2013, barring unforeseen delays.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch other stories about infrastructure on our Web site,, where you can follow a link to "Blueprint America," our partnership with WNET in New York, among other PBS stations.