Bay Bridge Design Spans a World of Controversy


It's decision-making time in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only two things can be counted on for sure: Nobody's happy, and everybody's loud.

This afternoon, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is scheduled to cast a final vote on just what the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will look like when the earthquake-damaged structure is torn down and a new span rises in its place.

Stretching just over two miles and costing upward of $1.5 billion to build, the new bridge has attained nearly mythical proportions in the region, as politicians, architects, activists and engineers have struggled to agree upon a design.

The bridge is no longer simply a structure that links two of Northern California's biggest cities, a traffic bottleneck, a slow means to an end.

In the past 15 months, it has metamorphosed into a visual icon, a gift for the future, a chance to rescue a fragile environment, a landmark that will grace this graceful region into the next century and the one beyond.

At the same time, it has become yet more proof--as if anyone needs it--that struggling Oakland and its East Bay neighbors reside in the chilly shadow of their glamorous sister across the bay.

The Bay Bridge is actually two bridges joined by an island: a graceful suspension on the San Francisco side and a clunky cantilever on the Oakland edge. The dowdy eastern half was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and is poised to be replaced with a bridge that Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris describes as flat-out "ugly," a "freeway on sticks."

In fact, Harris, Mayor-elect Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., mayors or city council members of six other East Bay cities and even San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown have banded together in recent days to call for a two-month delay in the vote. They would like to see an international design competition in hopes of getting a better bridge than the one that will probably be chosen today.

"We want a seismically safe bridge with heavy rail and bicycle and pedestrian access," said Diane Woolley, a Berkeley city councilwoman, during a final public hearing Monday. "It should grace both sides equally and not look like an eruption of joy on leaving the East Bay and reaching San Francisco territory."

Calls for a delay were rebuffed by an angry James P. Spering, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, who warns that a bridge should be in place before the next earthquake hits. "Any delays," he said, "would ignore the seismic concerns. If there is any delay, there could be a very high price to pay both in lives and dollars."

With the region poised on the edge of decision, there are cries of corruption and a good-old-boy machine, of a deaf bureaucracy and integrity impugned, of disrespect and red-baiting and democracy hijacked, of bad taste and opportunity lost.

Brown Expresses Opposition

One of the biggest finger-pointers is Oakland's new celebrity mayor--a man who won't take office until January but who has thrown himself into the fray regardless.

In an opinion article published this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jerry Brown raised hackles by saying that "sadly, the proposed bridge design reflects a closed, insider process."

He insisted that three members of a panel weighing in on the bridge were tainted by "self-interest" because they had submitted their own entries for possible selection.

"The recommended design--half of a suspension bridge attached to a bland viaduct--speaks of mediocrity, not greatness," Brown wrote.

A furious Mary V. King--Alameda County supervisor and chairwoman of the bridge design task force--on Monday lit into the mayor-elect and other critics for what she considers "horrendous" and "disruptive" eleventh-hour bridge-bashing.

King said she hopes Jerry Brown is "not going to be a mayor who calls things corrupt the way a little boy cries, 'Wolf, wolf.' We have almost reached the finish line. These calls for delay have come at the last minute, and they have a peculiar odor."

The Bay Bridge saga began with a bang nine years ago, when the San Andreas fault shifted at 5:04 p.m. in the middle of rush hour on Oct. 17. A 50-foot section of the cantilever bridge's westbound upper deck crashed into eastbound traffic on the lower deck.

No one was killed, but the crucial structure, then 53 years old, was out of commission for a month. Retrofitting is underway on the suspension side of the bridge, and transportation planners have been working since the 7.1 quake hit to get the Oakland side of the bridge rebuilt before another quake hits.

A first big step was the maiden meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's bridge task force early last year. Since then, three dozen architects and engineers have worked thousands of hours and spent $15 million in the initial design process.

After much contention, a design front-runner emerged last month: An asymmetrical, single-tower steel suspension bridge anchored in bedrock near Yerba Buena Island, with a long, plain concrete causeway stretching to Oakland.

Although most of the detailed design work on the suspension bridge has yet to come, the task force on Monday gave the idea preliminary approval.

The plain concrete causeway--also known as a viaduct--is the biggest sticking point. The East Bay mayors wrote to King last week to complain that the process "has not produced a world-class design that establishes a sense of gateway and place for the East Bay."

At Monday's hearing, Stephen Lowe, a vice president of the West Oakland Commerce Assn., said "the viaduct portion is visually insipid" and blasted the lack of light rail to ease traffic.

Oakland resident George Lithcott said that simply "adding railings and lights to the viaduct portion will not ease the East Bay's distaste for this design. We are looking for a gateway to the home where we live, where we work, where we play."

But for those who look at this contentious process as proof that democracy cannot be practiced in the cradle of the Free Speech Movement, consider the Bay Area's bicyclists, whose tale is proof that fringe can become fabric.

With helmets on their heads and chips on their shoulders, dozens of bike advocates insinuated themselves into the bridge design effort 15 months ago, demanding that the region increase construction costs by millions of dollars to fit the new bridge with a path for bicycles.

The bicycle path is the only part of the bridge on which there is even a whiff of agreement heading into today's vote.

"I am dizzy," said bike advocate Michael Katz. "A year ago we were fringe and controversial, and the bridge design was mainstream."

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