Joe Mathews: Bridge’s lone virtue — les­son for the fu­ture

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - INSIGHT - Joe Mathews writes the Con­nect­ing Cal­i­for­nia column for Zócalo Pub­lic Square. To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the ed­i­tor at SFChron­i­cle.com/letters.

How do you learn from a re­ally big mis­take? Walk across it. So re­cently I took a walk across the east­ern span of the Bay Bridge, from Oak­land to Yerba Buena Is­land. This piece of the bridge is our gen­er­a­tion’s big­gest Cal­i­for­nia mis­take. The east­ern span was com­pleted in 2013 — a decade late, cost­ing seven times of­fi­cial pro­jec­tions and dogged by safety con­cerns.

How­ever, the bridge does have one virtue: It holds lessons for the fu­ture, as Cal­i­for­nia faces the kind of enor­mous chal­lenges that will ne­ces­si­tate big projects. Af­ter the cau­tious gov­er­nor­ship of Jerry Brown, new state lead­ers are promis­ing big ini­tia­tives on in­fra­struc­ture, tax­a­tion and early child­hood.

Be­fore they do, they should read “A Tale of Two Bridges” by Stephen D. Mike­sell, a Davis his­to­rian.

To­day’s cyn­i­cal con­ven­tional wis­dom is that mega-projects — those cost­ing $1 bil­lion or more — are doomed to fail. But Mike­sell, by com­par­ing the suc­cess­ful 1936 Bay Bridge with the trou­bled 2013 east­ern span, ar­gues oth­er­wise.

He points to big lessons from 1936. First, lo­cal lead­ers built broad con­sen­sus about the project’s pur­pose: bet­ter con­nect­ing San Fran­cisco and Oak­land. Sec­ond, po­lit­i­cal peo­ple made the po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions about the bridge, and tech­ni­cal peo­ple made the tech­ni­cal de­ci­sions about en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign. Third, costs were es­ti­mated ac­cu­rately and the bridge came in un­der bud­get. And fi­nally, the bridge builders used con­struc­tion meth­ods proved in other bridges, em­pha­siz­ing func­tion over artistry.

The 2013 east­ern span didn’t pass th­ese tests.

The bridge was a di­vi­sive is­sue. Cost es­ti­mates were way off. Tech­ni­cal de­ci­sions about bridge de­sign were made po­lit­i­cally. And the big po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion — to build an ex­pen­sive new span in­stead of a less costly retrofit of the old span — was made by tech­ni­cal peo­ple at Cal­trans.

Ul­ti­mately, warn­ings from bridge en­gi­neers were ig­nored as Bay Area po­lit­i­cal lead­ers chose what they saw as the most vis­ually at­trac­tive op­tion — a self-an­chored sus­pen­sion bridge — even though this less com­mon de­sign cre­ated many prob­lems.

To walk the span is to get a first­hand sense of a bridge gone wrong. The walk­way it­self of­fers the first clue: It’s on the wrong side of the bridge, the south side, which pro­vides you a view of Oak­land’s port, in­stead of the north side, with beau­ti­ful views of the North Bay. The walk is also marred by pollution and noise from cars and trucks; east­bound traf­fic is so close it feels like it might run you over.

Af­ter an hour of walk­ing, I reached the bridge’s sig­na­ture tower and curve. But up close, the tower isn’t beau­ti­ful. It also cre­ated cost over­runs and is the site of many struc­tural prob­lems, in­clud­ing salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion into the foun­da­tion and sub­stan­dard welds.

The bridge is also a fail­ure be­cause of what it didn’t do. Big projects should be trans­for­ma­tional. But this span didn’t in­crease bridge ca­pac­ity, or im­prove traf­fic. Some en­gi­neers say the new span may be more prone to fail in an earth­quake than the bridge it re­placed.

The bridge was such a fi­asco that prominent of­fi­cials skipped its 2013 open­ing, leav­ing Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som to han­dle the cer­e­mony. He ex­pressed hope the bridge would in­spire “a gen­er­a­tion to dream big dreams and do big things.”

Now that New­som is be­com­ing gov­er­nor — and promis­ing big things — he’ll need to live by the bridge’s per­verse lessons: Any big project must be truly trans­for­ma­tional, pro­vid­ing a ser­vice or a con­nec­tion that truly changes peo­ple’s lives. Para­dox­i­cally, the ex­e­cu­tion of such trans­for­ma­tions must be prac­ti­cal and risk-averse, em­pha­siz­ing func­tion over form.

How might such lessons be ap­plied? For ex­am­ple, if New­som wants to build a sin­gle-payer health care sys­tem, it shouldn’t be the gold-plated model that pro­gres­sive groups have been ad­vo­cat­ing, but some­thing sim­ple, cheap and sturdy, cov­er­ing ev­ery­one. He’ll need to re­sist ef­forts to make his promised new sys­tems for tax­a­tion, home build­ing and early child­hood highly com­plex with loads of new for­mu­las.

Tired and sweaty af­ter reach­ing Yerba Buena Is­land, I called for a Lyft to take me back to my car in Oak­land. But no driver would come. So I trudged back across the bridge, on sore feet, re­peat­ing my ear­lier mis­take.

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle 2017

A group of bi­cy­clists, in­clud­ing Oak­land Mayor Libby Schaaf, ap­proaches Yerba Buena Is­land on the Bay Bridge Bike Path last year.

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