It’s been almost a quarter century – 23 years, seven months and four days, to be exact – since the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked out a section of the eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge, causing one of the earthquake’s 57 fatalities.
Despite the huge chunk of time that’s passed, California is still bungling along without a safe replacement bridge in place. Talk about Cali-Incompetence! Yes, the new span is supposed to be ready to open this Labor Day, Sept. 5, but whether does, and whether it’s safe remain to be seen. And the cost? The first bid came in at $1.4 billion, and we’re at $6.3 billion today … with some potentially very expensive fix-it work ahead.
Here’s a brief summary and timeline of the slowly unfolding human disaster that followed the natural disaster:
- After the quake, Republican governor Pete Wilson proposed a concrete viaduct as a replacement, which could be built cheaply ($1 billion) and safely.
- That idea was promptly shot down by haughty Bay Area leaders, who refused to accept something as pedestrian as a viaduct. (A viaduct is mundane – just several short spans tied together, getting from one side to the other without any showiness.)
- For the next ten years, Bay Area politicians fought over an appropriate design, while the patched-together Oakland Bay Bridge remained vulnerable to the next big quake. So what if a few more people die in the name of great bridge architecture?
- It was decided the western portion of the eastern span (leaving Yerba Buena Island towards Oakland) would be a “signature structure” and the rest would be … a viaduct. A design contest was held, Wikipedia tells us, that was judged by the Engineering and Design Advisory Panel (EDAP) of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. You might be shocked – Shocked! – to learn that many of the design finalists were proposals submitted by the very firms that employed EDAP members, and the ultimate winner was an EDAP member’s entry. “This posed a serious conflict of interest,” says Wikipedia. Indeed, especially since the selected design was more expensive than the alternatives.
- The mayor of Oakland, one Jerry Brown, protested mightily because the signature structure was as far away from Oakland as it possibly could be. He said the design “speaks of mediocrity, not greatness.” As an Oakland native, I can say that mediocrity is actually a complimentary symbol for the town.
- Gov. Gray Davis put an end to the squabbling and moved the selected design forward, signature span, viaduct and all.
- When construction bids – well, there was only one bid, actually – were opened in September 2004 state officials were surprised to see it was $1.4 billion, about twice what the ace number-crunchers at Caltrans thought it would be.
- Gray was gone and Arnold was in, and in December 2004 Gov. Schwarzenegger canceled the contract, saying it was too expensive. Instead, he wanted an all-viaduct design. Ghosts of Pete Wilson!
- Signature span hawks fought back in a battle of conflicting cost estimates until, in November of 2005, a “compromise” was reached that returned the signature span. It’s not clear to me what the countering half of this compromise was, but the cost of the delay is clear enough: as much as $400 million. That’s a small price to pay for great bridge architecture, right?
- Construction got underway, and a few months later, in April 2005, welds on the bridge were called into question.
- On October 27, 2009, a crossbar and two tension rods collapsed, dumping 2.5 tons of debris onto the upper deck roadway during the evening commute. One car and a delivery truck were struck, but no one was killed. The bridge was closed to traffic in both directions for six days. (Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle)
- In November 2009, a cracked eyebar was discovered that would have closed the bridge had it not been under a temporary construction closure already.
- As detailed in Crazifornia, in November 2011 Caltrans got caught covering up that one of its staffers had fabricated the results of tests on the integrity of Bay Bridge concrete pours, including pours of the structure supporting the massively heavy signature span tower. A report on what this means to the bridge’s integrity is due out in Spring 2013 – any day now.
- In March 2013, three big bolts (3 to 19 feet in length) that connect portions of the bridge deck to concrete columns failed load tests. Subsequently, 30 of the 96 bolts failed the test. Some of these bolts cannot be removed because the bridge has been built around them.
- And just this last Saturday, the Sacramento Bee reported that incompetent construction and bureaucratic ineptitude have led to rust forming on steel tendons that are critical to the bridge’s safe operation. First, Caltrans did a duct tape fix (Really, with actual duct tape, God bless ‘em!), then they attempted to minimize this problem, but metallurgists who know a lot more about how steel performs than Caltrans have declared the rust to be a very big deal.
So, what did we get for our quarter century of waiting and 450 percent cost overrun? A bridge with a design that satisfies no one, that may not have met the basic requirement that it be safe, and that certainly will have much higher ongoing maintenance and repair costs than it should have.
Welcome to Crazifornia, and thank you, Caltrans.