A fair process?

In May, 1997, a panel of engineers and architects met to evaluate proposals for rebuilding the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was proven seismically unsound during the Loma Prieta quake of 1989.

The proposals were, unfortunately, judged by self-interested engineers and architects whose firms had submitted most of the proposals. Competing proposals were judged by the competitors.

For more than a year the panel of judges, including the self-interested judges, tried to find a way to eliminate one of the two competing proposals they had retained. Now a decision has been made, and if the proposed design ever gets built its illogical design will be difficult for its designers to explain without the resources of political scientists who will explain how a bad political process yielded a bad design. Through such a process, designers tried adding decoration to a viaduct which nobody wanted, and neglected to address the transportation needs of the future.

The original bridge, built for rail and automobile traffic, was eventually converted to ten lanes for automobiles only. Today it is one of the most heavily traversed bridges in the world. Deceptively, a concrete-intensive viaduct is being decorated with an appendage, an unnecessary mast-and-cable span, only 14 percent of the entire new bridge. That "signature structure" has been the object of more than a year of deliberations, while the remaining 86 percent which will be concrete viaduct has been hardly mentioned. The 14-percent portion, unjustified by any geologic, seismic or rational function, will cost at least $400 million and will create a bridge with a horrible challenge for seismic engineers: two disparate structures spliced together instead of a whole bridge. This is the SAME DEFECT which caused the 1936 bridge to fail in 1989.

The record shows that an overwhelming majority of municipalities, local agencies and citizen groups favored using the projected $1.5 billion to achieve more than simply another ten-lane bridge with 285,000 cars daily jammed upon it. Nearly every citizen who spoke at MTC meetings emphasized the need for bicycle and pedestrian access from shore to shore, or for future transit options, which need to be considered at the design stage. Oaklanders wanted a gateway to the east as noteworthy as San Francisco's west span. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, ostensibly representing nine Bay Area counties, has been deaf to its constituency: mayors, city officials, transit advocates, parks and recreation agencies, environmentalists, bicyclists. Access for bicycles and pedestrians, as well as provisions for rail, were officially called "amenities," extras which would not be funded out of state transportation funds but which might be considered feasible if paid for by revenues raised locally and specially for those purposes.

If the rhetoric of "world class" is to mean anything, it is to achieve the best we can in this world, with careful regard for our impact upon that world now and in the future. Twenty-first century bridges will be light-weight and resourceful, perhaps using materials like recycled aluminum and glass and carbon fiber; they will be strong and flexible in an earthquake; they will have automated electric transit and bikeways shielded from noise, exhaust and flying car parts. It would be incredibly unwise for us to buy a 20th-century concrete clunker of a bridge from salesmen who consistently show us a 14-percent decoration as if it were a whole bridge. The Bay Area—not the MTC nor Caltrans—ought to sponsor a truly open, international design competition for this bridge, and leave elevated-concrete, automobiles-only freeways behind as unsustainable artifacts of the 20th-century.

* * *

It is nearly ten years after the Loma Prieta quake destroyed Santa Cruz, buried Oakland commuters under tons of concrete rubble and severed the Bay Bridge. At the end of the millennium, after centuries of earth-shaking accomplishments in science and industry, we are learning to deepen our understanding and respect for the laws of nature. In building bridges to the future we can neither discard our past achievements nor fail to anticipate the aspirations of those who will inherit our chaotic world.

For some, the simple rebuilding of the bridge in steel and concrete is the height of imagination. Others have imaginations inspired by nearby suspension bridges which did not collapse, which survive as symbols of what we as a people could and did achieve with the talent and resources then available. Oakland had the industry and San Francisco had the wealth. We (and our bridges) were oriented toward the automobile; the highway system was young and growing. Future generations will soon enough discover whether courage, vision and responsible actions are their heritage. If, in rebuilding a bridge, we can do something more, then we must do it.

A cynical, senior Caltrans official confided a year ago that this project is "all about money." It is also irresponsible. The same conceptual flaw that caused the old bridge to collapse is included in current plans and cannot be fixed unless the plans and the process that produced them are scrapped. Private consultants are earning tens of millions of dollars to design a bridge which state engineers have for the most part (86 percent) already designed. A "signature" structure, less than one-fifth of the bridge and radically different from the remaining four-fifths, has been shown to the public, deceptively, as a whole bridge. An "open competition" for bridge designs was unannounced and closed. Experts who were asked to recommend (i.e. judge) bridge designs entered the competition and then limited their recommendations to their own designs.


home top