This Bridge Could Kill

Posted: Apr 08, 2001 12:00 AM
Last month, California state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, told The San Francisco Chronicle he favored a study that would examine retrofitting the Bay Bridge instead of building a proposed eastern span. Just what the area needed, another delay. The bridge has been deemed unsafe in the event of a big earthquake since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Bay Area pols look like a bunch of nincompoops who forgot to mend their own infrastructure. And just when it looked as if construction might begin this year, a new swell was about to imitate Mayors Willie Brown and Jerry Brown by throwing a monkey wrench into the project. Last week -- praise be to the gods -- Perata sang a different tune. "My intention is not to delay it," Perata told me. And: "I think it's too late to do a retrofit." Still Perata will hold a hearing on April 16 to look at the cost of proposed construction. Originally the new span was supposed to cost $1.3 billion; now a new state Department of Transportation report says it will be $2.6 bil. "I simply want to establish the basis for an incredibly high cost overrun," he said. Perata's first priority -- and that of every legislator -- ought to be to do whatever it takes to get this bridge built. Get it built first. Point fingers later. He may want to look tough in front of constituents who may not like the fact that legislators will have to extend the $1 toll surcharge. But if he spends too much time dwelling on what went wrong -- a long, long list -- he'll only give out-of-town legislators ammo to vote against funding this and other vital area bridge projects. Besides, he's not likely to invite Willie Brown and grill Da Mayor about why he delayed the project two years. Instead of using a hearing to embarrass various factions for having lowballed early cost estimates or wanting a fancy design, Perata ought to emphasize the need for a safe structure and the shame delays reflect on area politicians. The earliest this span could be completed is 2006. It could take 20 years or more, if someone doesn't make cinching the deal a priority. If not, if legislators delay this project in any way, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission should starting giving out warning slips when people pay their tolls or buy a FasTrak pass. They should read: "WARNING: Driving on the Bay Bridge could be hazardous to your health. "In 1989, a 7.1 magnitude quake from Santa Cruz damaged this bridge. One person died. A 250-ton chunk of the eastern span's upper deck fell onto the lower deck. Failure of bolts at the top of many support towers threatened a multi-span collapse that Caltrans believe could have resulted in "catastrophic loss of life'." "The U.S. Geological Survey believes there is a 70 percent probability of a 6.7 or greater quake hitting the Bay Area before 2030. "While Caltrans has retrofitted the existing eastern span, experts believe that if a Loma Prieta-magnitude earthquake occurs close to the bridge, "the interim retrofit will not protect the bridge from collapse.' "Your minivan might fall into the bay. The concrete on which you are driving could fall into the drink or onto a lower level of the bridge. Tons of bridge material could fall onto your car. Your child's car seat could be damaged. "You will deserve what happens to you. First, you are driving a car when you should be taking public transit. If this were a transit project, local pols would have made sure repairs were made sooner. "Second, you may well have voted for studies that could have delayed construction of this bridge. And you elected and re-elected the local clowns who thought it was their job, not to protect you by getting a new span built quickly, but by whining that the bridge didn't have enough public transit. Or wouldn't be good for business on Treasure Island. "If you do fall into the bay, the MTC suggests that your final act should be to kick yourself for never having told your Assembly member or state Senator to do the job he or she was elected to do.