San Francisco's $5bn bridge to nowhere

The Bay Bridge is massively over budget, years behind schedule and prone to earthquake damage. Will Arnold Schwarzenegger decide to save or terminate it before the Big One strikes? By Andrew Gumbel
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Every day of the year, 280,000 people drive their cars across the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco with Oakland and the sprawling suburbs to the east. And every day of the year, a good number of them surrender to the grim realisation that if an earthquake should hit while they are making their way across the three-mile span, there's a good chance the roadway will snap section by section like a line of dominoes and they will become part of a cascade of vehicles hurtling into each other and plummeting into the Bay.

Every day of the year, 280,000 people drive their cars across the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco with Oakland and the sprawling suburbs to the east. And every day of the year, a good number of them surrender to the grim realisation that if an earthquake should hit while they are making their way across the three-mile span, there's a good chance the roadway will snap section by section like a line of dominoes and they will become part of a cascade of vehicles hurtling into each other and plummeting into the Bay.

It's no secret that the Bay Bridge, the busiest toll bridge in the United States, is desperately unsafe. Ever since the last major quake in the San Francisco region, back in 1989, politicians, engineers and public interest groups have been clamouring to do something about it before the Big One strikes.

But the intervening 15 years have not produced a solution - just a catalogue of incompetence, greed, short-sightedness, futile argument, grotesque wastes of public money and an alarming failure to heed the advice of people who know what they are talking about - structural engineers who build bridges for a living.

The good news is that an alternative to the existing bridge is at last in the works. A replacement for the eastern span - the part that stretches from the man-made Yerba Buena island in the middle of the Bay to the Oakland shore - has been slowly rising from the water for the past year or so, and is due to be completed sometime in 2007.

The bad news is that its design is completely unsuited to the purpose of resisting earthquakes and may even be a liability as and when calamity strikes - a major scandal in and of itself. The further bad news is that its price tag keeps rising higher into the stratosphere, turning what was always going to be an extravagant outlay of public funds into the sort of expenditure that could finance the invasion of a small to medium-sized Middle Eastern oil state.

The latest budget estimate, released earlier this month, is a staggering $5.1bn (£2.84bn). That's double the $2.6bn Californians were told it would cost three years ago, and almost five times the budget estimate when the bridge was approved back in 1997. Nobody knows exactly what is causing the mind-boggling cost overruns, but part of it almost certainly has to do with the near-impossibility of building the structure to seismic safety standards.

Part of it, too, is down to bureaucratic wrangling and political warfare that has attended this project from the beginning. The latest budget estimates have unleashed an ugly fight between the San Francisco Bay Area establishment and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is playing the disaster to maximum political advantage and may yet manoeuvre to pull the plug on the bridge altogether. In the meantime, bills keep mounting and it would surprise absolutely nobody if $5.1bn turned out to be an extremely conservative estimate.

Already the great Bay Bridge disaster is being held up as a textbook example of how not to conduct public policy. At least some of the participants in its long history now admit that if they had known then what they know now, they would never have gone ahead with it. Mary King, the chair of the design panel that picked the flawed self-anchored bridge, told an East Bay newspaper this week: "If we had been told that this design would cost more than we could ever afford and it would either never be built or not for 30 years, then we would never have selected it. We would have chosen the plain vanilla bridge and we would be driving on it right now."

Bureaucratic logic does not see things so clearly, however, so those who have already dug themselves deep into the quagmire are continuing to dig themselves even deeper. After the $5.1bn estimate was released by the state Department of Transportation, Bay Area politicians rushed to the legislature in Sacramento to ask them to foot the extra bill. When Governor Schwarzenegger balked - he is, after all, trying to rein in all of California's other runaway budget deficits - the San Francisco delegation accused him of playing with them because their part of the state backed his rival in last year's extraordinary gubernatorial recall election.

Governor Schwarzenegger said the state would pay to demolish the existing bridge once the new one was completed, but as far as shelling out the extra billions were concerned, the Bay Area was on its own. It would have to raise bridge tolls - something the local legislators faithfully promised their voters they would never do.

The next few weeks will be crucial in establishing whether partisan politics is indeed the primary consideration here, or if Mr Schwarzenegger is serious about playing the role of Terminator and killing the bridge project. His bureaucratic difficulty - everyone seems to have one - is that much of the incompetence and overspending appears to reside with the Department of Transportation. Killing the bridge would involve exposing and embarrassing a lot of people on the state payroll, which will take some considerable courage on his part. Hence the prevailing wisdom that some sort of compromise will be worked out.

A few basic facts illustrate the utter madness of the situation. We know that a major earthquake is extremely likely in the San Francisco area in the next 30 years. The US Geological Survey said in a study last year that a quake measuring 6 or higher on the Richter scale was a virtual certainty, and that the chances of a calamitous event measuring 6.7 higher were better than even.

The existing Bay Bridge was never designed for earthquakes. When it went up in 1936 it was the biggest, most ambitious and most expensive civil engineering project in the world. It was built to be robust - the intention was to make it suitable for 70-ton tanks in the event of a Japanese attack on the West Coast - but earthquakes in those days were deemed to be acts of God against which engineering was no match.

The 1989 quake was the structure's first big test. The epicentre was more than 50 miles away - in contrast to the Hayward and San Andreas faults, which run right past San Francisco - but still the bridge was damaged. A section of the upper deck collapsed, killing a woman and creating havoc.

In the year after the 1989 quake, engineers carried out some hasty basic retrofits. The assumption back then was that retrofitting was the answer - if only, given the vast number of structures around the bay that needed seismic protection, because it was likely to be by far the cheapest solution.

But then something strange happened. The budget figures for retrofitting were steadily padded out from an initial $200m to about $1bn. The figures for building a new bridge, meanwhile, were massaged downwards so it looked as though it would scarcely cost any more.

A new bridge would last longer, the argument went, and would be an opportunity to create a signature piece of architecture. Then-governor Pete Wilson agreed, and the great bridge boondoggle began. The seven-member Bay Bridge Design Task Force that Ms King headed included just one architect; the rest were politicians more consumed with aesthetics than practicality. The 30-member engineering advisory panel included only seven people who knew anything about bridges, according to Abolhassan Astaneh, a professor of engineering at the University California in Berkeley who would later emerge as one of the bridge's leading - and most controversial -- critics.

Essentially, they had to choose between a cable-stay bridge, in which the suspension cables are attached to anchors, and a single tower self-anchored design, in which the stress of the structure is contained within the deck of the bridge itself - that is to say, the roadway. The panel chose the self-anchored bridge, largely because it looked nicer, completely overlooking the fact that existing self-anchored bridges tended to be very short spans in parts of the world where earthquakes are not a consideration.

Dr Astaneh ran computer simulations on the new design and discovered that a major earthquake ran a serious risk of buckling and collapse. The Department of Transportation dismissed his warnings as nonsense and accused him of sour grapes because he had himself submitted a design for the new bridge that had been rejected.

Fellow engineers do not entirely agree with his disaster scenario, but nor do they disavow it. Several structural experts familiar with the Bay Bridge say it is simply the wrong design. It is not that it cannot be built to meet the seismic protection standards, they say, just that doing so will be extremely difficult and expensive.

"This design may be an architectural wet dream, but somebody is now faced with the task of making the damn thing work," said one engineer, who did not want to be named because he is working as a consultant on the project.

"Every construction flaw will be magnified because of a lack of redundancy. They touted this as a seismic safety project, but the construction scheme is not optimised from the point of view of seismic safety. The scheme is not inherently safe." Reinhard Ludke, a widely respected San Francisco engineer, said the clumsiness of the project was like "trying to build a spaceship with a propellor".

"This is a structure that relies on compression, and when the compression member fails - in this case the road deck - it can fail spectacularly with no notice." Some have also pointed out that a suspension bridge of any kind is unnecessary. Building the roadway high above the water might have made sense in the days when the San Francisco Bay was being plied by commercial ships, but those days are long gone and unlikely to return because the main port has been built in San Pablo Bay to the north.

"A large span like a suspension bridge is usually conceived to go over a shipping channel but there is no more shipping channel," said structural engineer John Eidinger. "It's going to look quite interesting visually, but it will have no function. It's an extraordinary waste of taxpayer dollars - a fancy bridge in the Bay that doesn't go over anything."

Blame for this fiasco is likely to spread far and wide. The Department of Transportation has borne the brunt of criticism for endorsing the whole process and failing to maintain even a modicum of budgetary control - it has, for example, spent half a billion dollars just on outside consultants. Other culprits may include Jerry Brown, the former California governor and Democratic presidential candidate, who as mayor of Oakland was the first to insist on an aesthetically pleasing solution.

Willie Brown, the flamboyant former mayor of San Francisco, delayed the project during the late 1990s because he wanted to reroute the bridge to make way for development projects on Yerba Buena Island. And Gray Davis, the unloved California governor unseated by Mr Schwarzenegger last year, also has a hand in it - his contribution being to insist on building the bridge with US steel rather than cheaper imports.