Controversy Swirls Around Proposed Bay Bridge Re-Design

 

Disagreements both petty and profound continue to swirl around the proposed rebuilding of the Bay Bridge. The $1 billion proposal, which is intended to replace the eastern portion of the bridge damaged in the Loma Prieta quake, seems to please no one except officials of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is vexed that the proposed design will cast a shadow some prime development sites on Yerba Buena-Treasure Island. In the East Bay, mayors of the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland - including Oakland Mayor-elect Jerry Brown - are criticizing MTC's single-tower scheme as lacking in beauty and unbecoming as a civic symbol. Mayor-elect Brown has further alleged conflict of interest among the engineering firms that both consulted and competed to build the bridge.

The conflict may not be resolved in November, when voters in four cities -Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and San Francisco - weigh in on an advisory measure whether the bridge should be re-designed to accommodate commuter rail. The MTC proposal is for vehicular traffic only.

The process of rebuilding the bridge began in an orderly enough manner. In February 1997, MTC convened a panel of technical experts, including seismologists, structural engineers and geologists, to help decide the most appropriate bridge structure. These panels were drawn from the membership of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and advisory groups put together by Caltrans. Informing the design was the deep silt on the Oakland side of the bridge, which necessitated deep piles. "Geologists on the panel drew our attention to the fact that soil conditions would determine what the bridge would look like above water," said Steve Heminger, MTC director of government relations and public affairs. Eventually, the MTC panel settled on an austere design with a single tower near Yerba Buena, terminating in a ribbon-like causeway in Oakland. Caltrans subsequently issued a request for proposal and selected T.Y. Lin International as the bridge contractor.

Although Yerba Buena, which lies within the city boundaries of San Francisco, arguably got the most ornamental feature of an otherwise plain bridge - the tower - Willie Brown is displeased. In turning against the alignment, Brown has been swayed by Treasure Island project director Annemarie Conroy. "When Miss Conroy joined the Treasure Island project, she was shocked to find out the true facts, with respect to the impacts of the proposed span on the economic-development plans," said Brown spokesperson Joan Rummelsburg. What was so shocking? The proposed bridge would pass over the northern part of the island, and the placement of the footings, as well as other construction impacts, would necessitate much of the island to be recontoured or regraded, Rummelsburg said.

MTC spokeswoman Marjorie Blackwell, however, pointed out that Willie Brown had in fact endorsed the northern alignment in writing 16 months before. Since that time, "MTC has spent 16 months on this design process," she said. "We feel we gave everyone adequate time to express (his or her) view. It's a little bit late to be coming in and saying that he doesn't like it."

At this point in time, she said, "it will be difficult to change." In a June press conference, the mayor danced away from his earlier position because, at the time he endorsed the northern alignment, "there was no physical design actually done that showed where various anchorages would be placed on property we hoped to acquire from the Navy." A more southerly alignment, however, would not be easy to do: such an alignment would necessitate moving an East Bay sewage outfall. Additionally, the alternative alignment might interfere both with existing Coast Guard operations on Treasure Island and the proposed expansion of the Port of Oakland, according to the MTC spokesperson.

On a different note, East Bay cities appear chagrined by the barrenness of the bridge design. Outgoing Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, for example, has called the proposal a "freeway on stilts." Oakland deserves a "signature span," argued Marina Carlson, Harris' policy analyst on planning and public works. "The old bridge was an engineering feat in its day," she observed of the original structure built in 1934. In replacing the picturesque old bridge, "we are taking away something that Oakland had in the way of history. Oakland is asking for something to come back, for something beautiful on our side." She is unimpressed with the mud-is-destiny argument: "If they (i.e. the MTC consulting engineers) wanted to do an engineering feat again, they would have to figure out how to deal with the mud."

Mayor-elect Jerry Brown, a man of arguably broader culture, argued powerfully for the value of the bridge as a civic symbol on his Website (www.jerrybrown.org). "As the Golden Gate symbolizes San Francisco, so the new east span of the Bay Bridge should identify Oakland as a city of the future," said Brown, who also went on to cite such civic monuments as the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, and the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Beyond aesthetics, Mayor Harris is disappointed that Caltrans is building only a replacement bridge with exactly the same capacity as the 1934 structure, rather than designing a bridge that could handle more traffic. Jerry Brown agreed with his predecessor that a mere "replacement bridge" was inadequate for current transit needs. Unlike Harris, however, he advocated a train to cross the bridge, recalling the era when the Key trains shared the bridge with vehicular traffic. The proposal is popular enough to have gotten on the November ballot in four cities, as mentioned above.

Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean seemed less concerned with design issues. "Form follows function, I subscribe to that," she said. "I think they (i.e. bridge engineers) need to figure out how this bridge is going to serve us, and then design a bridge that does that." She is more concerned, however, about the bridge's carrying capacity. "The currently proposed bridge is designed for the next 150 years, and it does not carry more than it does today, and that is unacceptable." If the current design goes forward, she warned, the new Bay Bridge "is not a bridge into the future, it is a bridge of congestions and problems." During the era of the Key trains, in fact, "the bridge had a greater capacity that it does today," Dean said.

Understandably, MTC's Heminger is not enthusiastic about redesigning the bridge for rail transit. For starters, "which train would run on the bridge?" He pointed at that BART already parallels the bridge, in an underwater tube that links Oakland with the Embarcadero district of San Francisco.

More serious, perhaps, are Jerry Brown's allegations of conflict of interests among several of the engineering firms that both advised MTC on the bridge design and competed for the job when Caltrans issued the RFP. Brown further said that two members of a Caltrans advisory board submitted designs, and "that their two were the only designs chosen for serious consideration." MTC's Heminger said that the process has been open, and that firms that consulted with MTC and later competed for the Caltrans work publicly declared their intentions to do so. Further, he pointed out that the firm which had originally proposed the structural type which MTC selected did not win the Caltrans contract. Notwithstanding, Brown is hoping to scuttle the current bridge design, and create an "open process" by holding an international design competition for the structure.

Berkeley Mayor Dean predicted that the advisory ballot measure would win easily in Berkeley. At the same time, she stressed the importance of any workable mass-transit solution, not simply rail. "I don't care if it is light rail or if it buses. If they (i.e. MTC) do a feasibility study and find that it is better to put buses on the bridge, that would be fine with me, as long as we have the capability to move efficiently over that bridge over the next 150 years. We've got to move people on mass transit."

Contacts:

Steve Heminger, manager of legislation and public affairs, Metropolitan Transportation Commission (510) 464-7810.

Marina Carlson, spokeswoman, Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, (510) 238-3612.

Jerry Brown, Mayor-elect of Oakland, (510) 893-2684.

Joan Rummelsburg, spokeswoman, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, (415) 554-6131.

Marjorie Blackwell, spokeswoman, MTC, (510) 464-7884.

Shirley Dean, Mayor, City of Berkeley, (510) 644-6484.