State must learn from bridge debacle

September 5, 2013 

The old Bay Bridge, left, and the new one under construction.

RANDY PENCH — rpench@sacbee.com

Years late, billions over budget, riddled with construction errors – but also stunning, iconic, beautiful –the new eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge finally opened to regular traffic Monday night.

Due to last-minute uncertainty about when it would open, Monday's earlier ceremonial opening was low key, not the grandiose extravaganza originally planned. That was probably a good thing.

There's no doubt the bridge is a visual marvel. A self-anchored suspension bridge – 2,047 feet long, its steel cables forming a distinctive triangular pattern as they cascade down from a 525-foot tower – it is the largest such structure in the world. The suspension bridge attaches to the skyway portion of the span, two side-by-side bridges that gracefully curve toward n Yerba Buena Island from Oakland.

The new bridge replaces the old double-decker structure built in the 1930s and irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new bridge is much safer, and less vulnerable to earthquakes. Unlike the old bridge, the new span's open design provides sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay.

It reminds us that California can still do big things. But the new bridge also offers lessons on how not to do manage big public works projects, useful examples of missteps to avoid in the future as the state embarks on the state's next big transportation project –high-speed rail.

The bridge's more than $4 billion in cost overruns and decade or more of delay can be blamed in part on politicians squabbling over design. Gov. Pete Wilson initially wanted a bare-bones structure. His vision, dubbed derisively "a highway on stilts," was rejected by local politicians who fought for something more grandiose. It took years to settle on a design.

In the last few years, as the bridge has been under construction, mismanagement at the California Department of Transportation has become the focus of attention. The Sacramento Bee's Charles Piller broke stories about faulty inspections. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on bolts that failed on a key seismic safety device. A special steel saddle was designed to replace the broken bolts. Even now, there's concern that maintenance costs will increase as a result of the mistake.

Brian Kelly, secretary of the state's new Transportation Agency, says the state has learned a lot about how to manage mega projects from its troubled Bay Bridge experience. Vigorous and constant independent oversight is essential. So is transparency –letting the public know early and often what the expectations and the challenges are. Also for large projects, Kelly says, phasing is important, cutting the project into smaller chunks that are easier to manage.

There is no shortage of big transportation projects on California's horizon. High-speed rail is the obvious and most important. The state cannot afford the same delays, cost overruns and construction mistakes on its bullet train that marred the Bay Bridge project. After the bridge debacle, high-speed rail will be a key test for the state's newly organized Transportation Agency. Is it up to it?

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