Why we need to finish now an interim retrofit of the bridge

[November 6, 1999] The most urgent issue for the fate of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge is worry that the next large earthquake will cause the original east span to collapse. Geologists insist that an earthquake much larger than the 7.0 Loma Prieta quake of 1989 has a 70% likelihood of occurring in the next 30 years in the Bay Area. Dr. Abolhassan Astaneh, UC Berkeley professor of civil engineering, expert in large steel bridges and former consultant to Caltrans on this bridge, has urged officials to consider closing the bridge.

Dr. Astaneh's report to the MTC Bay Bridge Task Force in February, 1999, urged Caltrans to complete an interim retrofit which remains incomplete, in order to protect the public until a design process and a design, both of higher integrity than the current ones, may be devised. At the February 24 Task Force meeting, Mr. Coman and Mr. Feher tried to yield their allotted speaking time to Dr. Astaneh, whose message was more urgent than their own. The Chair of the Bay Bridge Task Force curtly refused to hear from Dr. Astaneh for more than the two minutes allotted to every other member of the public. The professor subsequently forwarded his recommendations to Caltrans, which refused to act in a comprehensive way to make the current bridge safe, and instead chose to discredit Dr. Astaneh. We urge Caltrans to pay very serious attention to Dr. Astaneh's concerns, and to submit them to the scrutiny of accomplished members of the engineering profession who do not have a conflict which biases them in favor of the present course, who are not members of MTC's Engineering Design Advisory Panel nor Caltrans' Peer Review Panel, nor associates of either.

Officials at Caltrans and the MTC have used concern about the condition of the present bridge as a crass fear tactic to gain support for their own dangerous bridge design. To push it through at any cost, they tried to win the support of California Governor Gray Davis, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Navy, and the President of the United States.

Outcries of apparent concern for the public are a last-ditch effort to save a rapidly sinking and badly planned process. Because Caltrans and the MTC stepped on every toe they could find on their way to build a new bridge, it is not surprising that opposition has surfaced. The Navy delayed the plans for a year by refusing to allow test bores to be drilled on their property. As reports alleged that the Navy's action was inspired by the Mayor of San Francisco, the Chair of the Bay Bridge Task Force stated publicly that if there be any deaths due to an earthquake on the present bridge before a replacement is built, it would be appropriate to see Mayor Willie Brown brought to court on murder charges. MTC is acting as if everyone is to blame but themselves, and as though they are the torchbearers of seismic safety. The facts speak otherwise.

Almost every action of the MTCand its advisory panel led by self-interested engineershas carried the design away from seismic safety and closer to the danger zone. Instead of choosing a straight bridge which would be shortest and structurally strongest, they chose a long, curving route. Rather than recommend the safer southern route, they chose a route to the north that teetered over an underwater canyon susceptible to mud slides (a decision they were later forced to modify). Rather than choose a suspension bridge, which is almost universally acknowledged to be the safest in an earthquake, they chose a concrete freeway on stilts of the type that most frequently collapses, particularly when built on mud as this one is planned to be. Rather than specify a bridge designed for rail, they chose a ten-lane freeway that cannot accommodate the additional weight of rail and a train. And rather than carrying out an open and fair process that would have speedily taken into consideration the public's interests and proper planning criteria for this major bridge project, they allowed a group of insiders to foment public controversy by squabbling among themselves, defending their inadequate plan against public criticism, delaying the project for years.

The California Legislature shares with MTC and Caltrans in misdirecting the project. Nearly eight years after the earthquake which collapsed the east span, Senate Bill 60 was sneaked through the Legislature as a gas tax bill. Just days before being signed into law, every word of the original bill was stricken, to be replaced by entirely new text about emergency funding for seismic retrofit and replacement of bridges. The bill greatly complicated the task of planning and designing a good bridge.

The legislation went further: it violated other provisions of state and federal law and the state constitution. Senate Bill 60, approved by a simple majority of both houses, overturned important provisions of an initiative bond measure which was approved by a two-thirds majority of voters. One of SB 60's provisions, a $1 toll surcharge, was specifically forbidden by the initiative. S.B. 60 extended the seismic retrofit program's statutory exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) until 2005. SB 60 and the MTC also validated Caltrans' practice of handing out contracts for design and engineering services to private firms, for work already underway "in-house" by state employees. "Contracting out" was ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in 1996, but the court misguidedly stayed its decision because of the "urgency" of outfitting roads and bridges for greater seismic safety. This protracted, decades-old legal dispute reached an important juncture when, in the fall of 1998, a Sacramento judge directed Caltrans to terminate immediately all contracts in the seismic retrofit program. (August 19, 1998 court order.)

The controversy created by the Legislature, Caltrans and MTC will likely cause additional years of delay. Steve Heminger of MTC has stated that even if the Navy dropped its opposition, the bridge plans would be further delayed by lawsuits threatened by the city of San Francisco and perhaps others. A retrofit could likely be completed in less than a year. We join with the mayors, activists and officials who urge that a comprehensive interim retrofit of the existing bridge be completed, as Dr. Astaneh urged a year and a half ago, in order to protect the quarter of a million people who cross this major corridor every day. Thereafter, we can look more seriously at what sort of bridge the Bay Area really needs and ought to have.

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