Sunday, May 5, 2013

An Ego-Driven Bridge Too New

Thanks to the ego-driven one-time mayors Brown of San Francisco and Oakland – Willy and Jerry, respectively – Bay Area motorists have been risking their lives for nigh on to a quarter century by driving across the unsafe bridge linking the two cities.

A portion of the span collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in the fall of 1989, and that clue led to a determination that the eastern half of the heavily traveled bridge was unsafe. It could have been reinforced or replaced by a conventional bridge quickly and economically, but that was unacceptable to the Brown mayors, who insisted on an ego-satisfying “signature structure.”

Thus the two mayors gambled the lives of many but uncounted thousands of motorists for the 24 years that have elapsed while hugely expensive design contest and decision, contractor selection, and still ongoing construction processes took place.

The still-to-be-completed replacement bridge will in fact be a spectacular and unique structure . . . assuming that it eventually actually will be completed and put into use.  But whether and when that ever will occur is becoming increasingly questionable.  What is unquestionable is that the costs and tolls to finance them have multiplied and are continuing to multiply astronomically.

In their insistence on a new and unique structure the political Browns ignored some long accepted wisdom that was shared among mature people even though, like the two mayors, they lacked any engineering training – new and unique also means untested and subject to unknown inadequacies, defects, and problems.

For example, in the long ago days of this blogger’s youth, it was a truism that it was the better part of wisdom to defer buying a new automobile until after the desired model’s first year of production.  That allowed the design engineers an opportunity to deal with and and correct the inevitable initial bugs.  A more recent and vastly more tragic example is the collapse of Manhattan’s World Trade towers when terrorist flew aircraft into them on September 11, 2001.  The structures’ modern design failed – a marked contrast to the integrity of the traditionally designed and built Empire State Building that was barely scathed when a B-25 bomber flew into it during Word War II.

In the case of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge the first new and unique “signature” bugs surfaced a few months ago at about the same time the local political powers that be had scheduled a bridge-opening celebration for the coming Labor Day weekend..  At the time, construction of the bridge seemed to be nearing completion. But then it was discovered that some steel bolts that had been installed and were no longer readily accessible had snapped.  The defective bolts are necessary for the bridge’s structural integrity.  It is notable that the bolts snapped before even being subjected to the weight of just the completed bridge, let alone the stress of a full load of traffic or an earthquake.

That startling discovery raised numerous mind boggling (and still largely unanswered) questions about what else was, or could go wrong, and led to multiple investigations and efforts to determine how the defects had occurred, who was responsible for them, and how they could be corrected . . . hopefully in time for the politically scheduled Labor Day opening (as well a the associated $5.6 million taxpayer funded congratulatory party the politicians planned to throw to celebrate themselves and one another for having won the gamble on which they bet the safety of the bridge's users).

Instead though, the still ongoing inquiries have resulted in a cascade of discoveries of  serious new and additional problems.

Among the lessons to be learned from this are (i) the inadvisability of allowing politicians to have any say over how necessary infrastructure components should be designed and built, and (ii) the advisability of not buying a bridge in its first model year.  Incidentally, bridges designed and built by the Romans throughout its European empire still are in everyday use throughout the continent.

Former S.F. Mayor Willy Brown has retired from public office and has gone uncharacteristically silent about the bridge about which he theretofore had been bragging.  Former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is like the Bourbon kings of France – never forgetting anything but never learning anything either.  With undiminished hubris, Jerry, who now is California’s governor, is pushing for massive new and novel projects to be funded by the taxpayers – a bullet train between the northern and southern portions of the state and a tunnel system to syphon water available and needed in the north from there to the naturally parched south. 

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