Oakland Bay Bridge

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, opened in 1936, is one of the world's most heavily traveled long-span bridges, in a widely admired urban and natural setting. In 1989 the Loma Prieta Quake caused partial collapse of the bridge's eastern span, on the Oakland side of the bay. In pursuit of an adequate repair or replacement, planners, politicians, engineers and citizens became caught up in a process dominated by inflexible thinking and short-sighted pursuit of money. The result is a proposed bridge as mediocre as one might expect. Though intended to improve a key transportation link, the planned new bridge cannot support standard passenger rail, though the 65-year-old existing bridge easily can. And, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the new bridge would not meet "lifeline" criteria, which was offered as the principal rationale for the project when it was determined that the existing east span may not be functional immediately following a sizeable quake. Controversy continues over the design earthquake: originally advertised as being able to withstand a magnitude 8 (Richter) quake on the San Andreas Fault or a magnitude 7.25 quake on the Hayward Fault, the proposed east span was later admittedly designed to a different design earthquake—one which, the Army Corps' study found, would be less forceful in the range of oscillation critical to the structure.

Yet these are only a few of many serious problems.

[29 October 2001]

During the week of September 11, legislation which would double the price of the East Span project was stealthily guided through the California Legislature. That bill, Assembly Bill 1171, squeaked through on the following Saturday, an extra day added to the session which was to compensate for the Legislature's down time that week following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Now signed into law, AB 1171 appropriates an additional $1.3 billion (total = $2.6 billion) above 1997 estimates.

Please use this link to reach the Caltrans District 4 website and the text of the East Span Seismic Safety Project Final Environmental Impact Statement.

This project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), per federal requirements, was released May 8. As we understand from public officials and meeting notes, a "Record of Decision" may be issued by the Federal Highway Administration after the document has been available for public review for 30 days. That decision may be an approval of the project, or a denial. Whatever that decision is, it will probably not be the ultimate word on whether this incredible project proceeds or stalls.

We need a thorough interim retrofit of the east span. From 1989 till 1997, seismic retrofit strategies for the east span were studied. Today, almost twelve years later, only a small fraction of needed improvements have been made. While many of the east span's most daunting vulnerabilities remain, workers are currently busy improving towers and decks of the classic suspension bridges of the west span, which weathered the1989 Loma Prieta quake with no essential damage.

The wrong way to rebuild a bridge

The proposed replacement span for the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge is, according to its own designers, difficult to build, and, according to seismic experts, dangerous. It was planned with complete disregard for the public's criteria and interest, thus violating federal law. It was proposed by insiders who hoped to limit the scope of a process which ought to have been conducted according to international conventions. It is exempt from state environmental review and flunks federal environmental review. Worse still, it violates sound design principles, calling into question how such a proposal could ever have emerged in a "seismic safety project."

Planned to connect Oakland and Yerba Buena Island is an unbalanced cable span spliced to a freeway on stilts in a major earthquake zone. The press, The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) have consistently shown images of the suspension structure (tower and cables) as if it were the whole bridge. In fact, it is only 15 percent of the length of the eastern span.

Critics denounce the proposed bridge, which is mostly a high-mass, primitive viaduct, as a "freeway on stilts." Proponents no longer call it "The Skyway." The other portion, which was added to decorate the viaduct, is a steel "self-anchored" suspension bridge which will sustain major damage and will possibly fail catastrophically in the next major earthquake. Experts in structural analysis have serious safety concerns about the proposed asymmetrical self-anchored suspension bridge between Yerba Buena Island and the viaduct. These concerns have been ignored by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which approved the design on June 24, 1998 despite massive opposition. Among those denouncing the entire proposal are the mayor of Emeryville, the mayor of Berkeley, former Oakland mayor (and Bay Bridge Task Force member) Elihu Harris, the mayor of Oakland (read Jerry Brown's comments), the public-works director of Oakland and the mayor of San Francisco. A Congressional delegation which includes both of California's US Senators has also opposed the proposal. And the US Navy declares "infinite" refusal to allow the proposed bridge to land at Yerba Buena Island north of the existing bridge. Criticism is not principally about aesthetics and real-estate deals, as reported in the major San Francisco newspapers, but about a deeply flawed selection process and its consequently dreadful product, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's recommended design. It does not address present or future needs. Its lack of rail accommodation is decried by Emeryville Mayor Ken Bukowski, who makes a strong case for alternatives to the automobile as integral to the design. It has a glaring conceptual flaw, the splicing of two structural types with radically distinct seismic characteristics, which is the same flaw which caused partial collapse of the original Bay Bridge during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

For over a year, activists lobbied hard to have a bicycle and pedestrian path included in the plans (which, in any event, was already legally mandated). The path was approved in last-minute voting by the MTC which specified an inferior, unsafe and uninviting design which could easily be reverted to an automobile lane at a future date. The new bridge will have no more capacity to alleviate smog and stagnant commutes than the bridge it will replace. And, in omitting rail, it will carry fewer people than the existing bridge did when it opened in 1936.

On September 10, 1998, twenty-one bicyclists rode from Oakland to San Francisco across the bridge to call attention to the lack of rail or a decent bike path in the east span plans. For their efforts they were arrested, incarcerated and threatened with felony conspiracy charges. Their bicycles were confiscated. The co-founder of Bike the Bridge! Coalition describes the incident in an urgent message from the front: Read Jason Meggs' account.

Debate by the MTC and its technical advisors and press accounts in all major media focused almost exclusively on the proposed self-anchored suspension structure (depicted below), a structure which serves no useful purpose whatever. It was added to aesthetically enhance the viaduct. As criteria for this politically hurried project were pasted together, questions of form and appearance were addressed and questions of function were ignored.

How was such a flawed proposal approved? It was the direct result of a flawed political process. Dan Zoll's feature article in the S.F. Bay Guardian sheds light on how this happened.

On August 19, 1998, a judge in Sacramento ruled that numerous seismic-retrofit contracts issued by Caltrans, the state transportation department, were illegal. Among them is a contract for the design of the new Oakland Bay Bridge east span, expected to cost $50 million of public money. Preliminary costs have been roughly $40 million to date; the next $30 million is for refining the causeway plus self-anchored suspension hybrid concept. State officials have called this project a public/private consortium. It is coordinated by Caltrans and T.Y. Lin International, with numerous engineering consultants, architects and contractors in the consortium.

MTC's Bay Bridge Task Force has no future meeting scheduled as it awaits the fate of plans which it approved in June of 1998, despite significant and vocal opposition.

[October 27, 2000] In its review of design documents, the Corps found the bridge was not being designed to for a Richter 8.0 (San Andreas) or 7.25 (Hayward) quake, and that it could not be relied upon as a lifeline structure.
the Bridge
[November 6, 1999] Plea to complete a long-delayed interim retrofit of the existing bridge.
[July 14, 1999] In a startling admission, the chair of the Engineering and Design Advisory Panel says that seismic monitoring instrumentation was inadvertently omitted from the design.
[May 19, 1999] The U.S. Navy's refusal to grant permits is not ridiculous and irresponsible, as reported by MTC Bay Bridge Task Force Chair Mary King.
[March 17, 1999] Oakland District Director Yahata says, "The process leading to the design and alignment recommended by MTC to Caltrans has been a fair, open and public process."
[February 24, 1999] Structural analysis by UC Berkeley professor of engineering reveals serious seismic safety flaws in the officially approved design.
on notice
[February 19, 1999] Caltrans Director Medina is notified that MTC's approved design is flawed, dangerous, unworthy and the result of fraud.
Draft environmental
impact statement (DEIS)
[September 21, 1998] Caltrans submits a DEIS which receives a failing grade from the U.S. EPA.
Private contracts
[August 22, 1998] Judge rules contracting procedure used for Bay Bridge violates California Constitution. Contracts given to campaign contributors.
[June 22, 1998] Oakland's mayor, Jerry Brown, calls for an honestly juried, open international competition for bridge design concepts.
[1998] Daniel Coman analyzes some of several fundamental flaws in the proposed design.

E-mail us to help synthesize the best thinking on this project. Some areas of interest:

Engineering and seismic safety
Architectural design
What should the bridge be and what should it do?
Additional transit options on the bridge
Treasure Island
Inspiring 21st-century technology
Oakland redevelopment

Find out what is being done in other parts of the world: Stretto di Messina bridge, planned to span Calabria and Sicily, could easily span Oakland to YBI without touching water.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, arguably one of the ugliest and most frightening bridges in the world, might have been one of the nicest, had California's old boys' network not been so impenetrable. See Frank Lloyd Wright's proposal for a concrete bridge when, ironically, steel was the preferred option. Note: the Wright bridge's design is not suitable as an east-span replacement, due to its symmetry and the differences in elevation between the YBI tunnel and the Oakland landing. But it is certainly in a different class from the decorated viaduct which has been approved for the east span.

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