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Democrats who are quick to bash Bush over disaster response should study Loma Prieta-Bay Bridge tale

Some Bay Area politicians have been quick to vilify the Bush Administration
for their response to Hurricane Katrina and of not spending millions of
dollars to strengthen the levees around New Orleans. Before they get too
carried away, they should remember the old saying about people who live in
glass houses.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area
causing the collapse of a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge,
resulting in, thankfully, only one fatality. The bridge was shut down for
only 32 days, but the quake exposed the weaknesses of the 52 year old
structure.

After the quake, the question was whether the bridge should be seismically
retrofitted to withstand the larger quakes that experts know will occur
sooner rather than later, or whether the bridge should be replaced. It was
decided that the western suspension span connecting San Francisco to
Treasure Island could be retrofitted, but that the eastern cantilever span
would need to be replaced. The eastern span simply could not be retrofitted
to stand up to the “big one.”

That decision took 8 years. Once that decision was made, the question turned
to what kind of bridge should be built. Gov. Pete Wilson proposed that the
old bridge be replaced with a simple skyway design. He believed that this
would be the quickest, most cost-effective way to complete the project. Bay
Area leaders balked at that suggestion and instead insisted that the Bay
Area needed a “signature span,” deriding the Wilson plan as a “freeway on
stilts.”

A design committee was formed with 33 members representing all stakeholders
in the Bay Area, from environmentalists to elected officials. The design was
to be a sweeping skyway and, at the last quarter mile, a self-anchored
suspension span soaring to the heavens. This was a bridge deemed worthy of
the Bay Area. A bridge of this design and magnitude had never been built
anywhere in the world.

There was internecine warfare between the Mayors Brown–Willie of San
Francisco and Jerry of Oakland–and other delays that I will not bore you
with here. Suffice it to say, the wrangling cost valuable time. In the end,
the Bay Area leaders got their bridge design and the Legislature in 1998
then wrote that design into law–the only time in California history that a
bridge design had been written into law. When Gov. Gray Davis broke ground
on the structure in January 2002, it had been almost 13 years since Loma
Prieta. The completion date was set for 2006.

In May 2004, when cost increases on the self-anchored span outran the money
that had been appropriated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed returning to
the simpler, less expensive skyway design. He was rebuffed by the
legislative leadership, particularly Sens. Don Perata and Tom Torlakson, as
well as other Bay Area stakeholders. The talks fell through at the end of
the 2004 legislative session.

Finally, after another 10 months of delay, the governor and the Legislature
reached an agreement in July 2005 on a funding solution that kept the
original design.

This October, it will be 16 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on
a cool autumn evening as the nation watched the World Series between the
Giants and the A’s. And still we do not have a new bridge. The new bridge
will not be completed until late 2012 at the earliest, provided that there
are no more construction problems.

The point here is not to rehash what happened or to play the blame game, as
some are now doing with Katrina.

The point is that for seven years or more, California will be playing
Russian roulette with Mother Nature. Years of delay has put one of
California’s vital arteries for commerce and commuters at risk. The cost to
California would be staggering.

We are banking on not having a “heart attack” in that artery before we can
get a transplant.


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