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Our Future - Bridges to Nowhere?

By Rich Van Winkle   January, 2012

It is increasingly difficult to avoid despair about our future. The more we look, the more we find evidence that “America” is headed for the dregs. While there are many social, political, spiritual, and scientific indicators of our decline and self-destruction, I will focus here on just one example: the East Span Replacement of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

The Bay Bridge[1]:

The idea of bridging San Francisco with Oakland wasn’t new in 1929 when the California legislature decided to establish an agency with the responsibility of constructing a bridge (the California Toll Bridge Authority or CTBA). Substantial federal investment in “infrastructure” projects was a key factor in that timing. The CTBA promptly commissioned studies and proposals and just four years later, bridge construction began (July 9, 1933). It took three years and five months to complete the Bay Bridge (it opened on November 12, 1936 to much fanfare). At the time it was the longest bridge in the world (8 ¼ miles long); it had two end-to-end suspensions and incorporated six different kinds of bridges with the deepest piers in the world. It included a tunnel, toll booths, and complex access ramps. The final bridge cost $6 million less than originally estimated ($82 million). Tragically, 28 Workers died during the construction.

On October 17, 1989, a major earthquake struck the Bay Area causing the upper deck on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge to fail and crash onto the lower deck (causing the lower deck to fail). One person was killed (but not from the collapse) and public concerns about the loss of a major highway (280,000 vehicles a day) led to great pressure to fix the bridge. Remarkably, using “emergency powers”, temporary repairs were promptly completed and the bridge was reopened on November 18 (just 31 days later). But it was clear that more needed to be done, but what?

The western suspension span(s) were better designs for the area and required only some earth-quake proofing (or “seismic retrofitting”). But, the eastern span (a cantilever bridge) raised greater concerns and debate: could it be prudently made earthquake safe? To answer that basic question, Caltrans[2] contracted with a professor at U. C. Berkeley to conduct a three-year study which concluded that a retrofit of the span would be safe and make fiscal sense. But soon thereafter (1994) an earthquake damaged a retrofitted bridge near Los Angeles and Caltrans decided to reconsider the replacement option. For several years both options were weighed simultaneously. In 1996, Caltrans estimated that it would cost $1.3 billion to retrofit the existing structure and $1.5 billion to build a new east “skyway” span[3]. Since the new span would have a longer lifetime and would require less maintenance, momentum swung in favor of a new span (which would resemble the San Mateo Bridge, the other Bay Bridge to the south). In 1997 Governor Wilson announced that a new bridge would be built. Meanwhile, the eastern span was to be retro-fitted for seismic safety and ten years after the collapse of the eastern span, work began to prevent such a collapse from recurring (completed in July of 2000).

By September of 1998, Caltrans had produced a preliminary plan with an estimated completion of a new bridge in 2002. But state and federal officials could not agree on the environmental impacts and concerns, so bidding of the project was delayed for two years. In 2001, the state decided to separate the bids to reduce costs. Meanwhile, another option was presented: a more elaborate and “aesthetically appealing” design estimated to cost $1.7 billion (an extra 2 years worth of tolls). A combination of state and federal funds would have footed the bill for a simple and less expensive design, but local governments could have the nicer bridge if they paid the difference in cost. As it turned out, the cost was only one issue.

“We’re going to have an internationally recognized piece of sculpture on the bay that’s functional and that’s absolutely in tune with what the Bay Area has been doing since the 1930s,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesman and legislative director for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (or MTC). In other words, local officials wanted artwork as much as a functional bridge. If that only cost an extra $200,000,000.00, what’s the problem? Finding a budgetary source was the first problem; agreeing on the “artwork” was the second.

Before bids could be let out, a final design had to be agreed upon and funds secured. Since the current bridge was toll based and the future bridge would be toll based, all that was required was a vote by citizens to finance the project (by a bond measure).  In 1996, California voters were asked to approve the sale of $2b in bonds to pay for seismic retrofitting of state-owned highways and bridges with only $650 million earmarked for all the toll bridges in the state, including the Bay Bridge. Recognizing the shortfall in December of 1996, a state senator introduced two bills providing $2.6 billion in funding specifically for retrofitting or replacing five bridges in the Bay Area. But many in the state legislature believed that a local toll bridge mostly benefitting local citizens should be built with local funds. The bickering began.

In July of 1997[4], MTC’s design advisory panel whittled down 13 design submissions to two options for further study: a cable-stayed suspension option and a self-anchored suspension option. Eventually, the MTC approved the self-anchored suspension option even though it was the most complicated, difficult, and expensive to build (an 11-1 vote). Given this direction, Caltrans then hired an engineering firm[5]  to complete the design for $81m. In May of 1998 (only five months after being contracted), the engineers presented Caltrans and MTC with a working design for the self-anchored span (then estimated to cost $2.6b). That design called for a bridge “alignment” which Willie Brown (then Mayor of SF) believed would interfere with his plans to develop Treasure Island (the manmade island that the U.S. Navy had been bestowed to the city of San Francisco). His administration subsequently caused a two year delay in the building of the span – a delay that was only overcome by federal intervention.

During this delay (November of 1998), local citizens approved ballot measures to study the incorporation of light rail into the bridge design. By December of 1999, Governor Davis appealed to the federal government to intervene in the matter and Transportation Secretary Slater did so – taking control of the right-of-way on Yerba Buena Island. By October of 2000, the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers had finished its analysis of the project and agreed with most of Caltran’s plans and methods. However, in April of 2001, Caltrans reported to the legislature that cost forecasts had risen to $4.6b.

In October of 2001, Assembly Bill 1171 passed the legislature providing over $5b in funds for the retrofit program. That December, bids for the skyway portion of the east span were opened and construction began the following month (Jan. ’02). In May of 2004, Caltrans opened the SINGLE bid for the jewel of the bridge – the “Self Anchored Suspension Span” (SASS).  The only bidder was a joint venture of American Bridge, Nippon Steel, and Fluor Corporation and that bid offered two options: $1.8b if the SASS was built using American steel or $1.4b with foreign (Chinese) steel. To help make that decision and analyze the bid, Caltrans turned to MTC and Bechtel Infrastructure Corporation (a SF based consulting firm). They were tasked with an independent review of the bid and to study the implications of rebidding it or simply ditching the design. Meanwhile, Caltrans was telling the legislature that the funds provided for bridge improvements were at least $3b short of the need.

Legislators drafted a bill offering an interim solution to the funding shortfall but that bill was axed by California’s new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The ensuing lack of funding led to the expiration of the only available bid (since Caltrans could not authorize commencement of construction). The whole matter reached a new level of public scrutiny and criticism following a statement made by one of the non-bidding contractors (C.C. Myers): “Given the current fiscal state of California, we all need to adopt a ‘function over form’ mentality, and see to it that our coffers are not needlessly emptied on what is little more than an architectural pipe dream.” Meyers suggested that Caltrans build a simpler less expensive skyway bridge and then add ornamental towers and cables (at a much lower cost).

In January of 2005, another consulting firm (The Results Group) issued a report (later submitted to the legislature) identifying several problems and issues with the SASB design: problems with steel fabrication and contractor mobilization and issues with “capital outlay support” and inadequate contingency funds. The report noted that “The east span is at least three times more costly than any project ever built by Caltrans before” and thus, Caltrans was just not up to the task of creating reliable cost estimates (a common problem with such complex “mega projects”). They projected a cost of $5.3b.

Caltrans had to re-bid the project and chose an odd path: to avoid federal “Buy America” requirements[6], they decided to fund the project without federal assistance (the original bid offered a 29% additional cost for using American steel and fabrication). At that point, it was apparent that those who wanted an icon/art piece had won the debate despite obvious problems and rational concerns.

By July of 2005, the Legislature passed and Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill (AB 144), which provided a financial plan for the California Toll Bridge Seismic Retrofit Program and including the creation of a new agencies (the Bay Area Toll Authority or “BATA” and the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee or “TBPOC”) which would manage all state-owned toll bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area (except the Golden Gate). For this Bill, the Legislature estimated cost for the new East Span at $6.3b - not including contingencies. Thus, in less than a decade, the stated price of construction had grown nearly fivefold: from a $1.3 billion estimate in 1996 to more than $6.3 billion in 2005. The most disturbing aspect of AB 144 and its new agencies were the restrictions placed upon public review of the project – including financial review. Thus, in order to “push construction ahead”, the price was less public oversight of spending.

On April 18, 2006, Caltrans (via the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee and BATA)awarded a $1.4b contract to American Bridge-Fluror (“ABF” - a joint venture) as the sole and winning bidder of the SASS[7].  The contractor made it clear that the major assemblies and steel fabrication would be sub-contracted to ZPMC (Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.) under the premise that no American company had the facilities or skills to build this complex structure at a competitive price. The bureaucrats suggested that the use of Chinese steel and labor in fabricating the SASS reduced ABF’s bid by hundreds of millions of dollars – thus creating savings for taxpayers.

Of course, it was neither that simple nor that easy – problems arose quickly and have continued. There were early concerns voiced by contractors who thought the project was a mistake and that the design was flawed. Parsons Corporation, an engineering company, sent a letter to Caltrans predicting difficulties with the orthotropic box girder configuration: “We have no doubt that quality can be achieved, but at what cost and impact to schedule remains uncertain.” Parsons also noted potential/probable risks associated with the design and fabrication of the main suspension cable. In February of 2006, an internal Caltrans report noted that a major ZPMC facility received a “contingent pass” only because auditors anticipated construction of a new facility devoted entirely to fabricating the tower and that ZPMC would purchase equipment necessary to comply with manufacturing requirements. It had previously noted problems with the training of some 2,000 welders needed to perform the fabrication. One auditor noted that “ZPMC does not have the required experience” or knowledge to fabricate this complicated structure.

If ZPMC had to build the needed facilities, train the needed workers, and learn the skills needed to meet the contract terms, it was no better suited for this project than several American companies – except, of course, that ZPMC didn’t have to pay US taxes or the salaries for US workers[8]. There are also concerns with “quality assurance”: since almost all of the Chinese fabrication is performed manually by workers with cultural and language differences, the specifications must be adjusted or interpreted under local standards. Questions like “how much is good enough?” and “what constitutes compliance?” are answered differently in China[9].

As of this writing (Jan. 2012), the final SASS deck sections are being placed, the main support cable is being “pulled” and MTC is still forecasting a late 2013 opening for the East Span. As summarized by Patricia Decker and Robert Porterfield, “[D]espite California’s sometimes-dysfunctional government and the state’s increasing inability to live within its financial means, if you can squeeze enough money from motorists who are dependent on bridges for their own livelihood, even the most sophisticated bureaucratic squabbling, infighting, and outright bumbling will ultimately give way to progress.” Unparalleled bridge, unprecedented cost, SF Public Press, Dec 8 2009.

There are still questions regarding cost-overruns and delays[10], but even without a full accounting we can now compute a more accurate total cost for the East Span: $7.2b construction cost plus $6.2b interest cost yields a total cost of $13,400,000,000.00 or about the amount the entire state of California spends on higher education in a year. It is one of the most expensive structures ever built. The $400 million supposedly saved by having the SASS built in China amounts to less than 3% of the total cost and gives the Bay Area the largest “Made in China” project in the USA. “We wanted something strong and secure, but we also wanted something iconic,” said Bart Ney[11], a spokesman for Caltrans. It’s an icon quite different than the locals intended.

The Bay Area’s new iconic span – the SASS (using a single looped cable)



Before leaving the bridge discussion, we should note two related discussions: the bike/pedestrian pathway and the railway option. It would seem that incorporating a sidewalk/bike path into a bridge design would add a small incremental cost. But, instead of doing that, there is discussion about adding such as an “afterthought” (along with the various access ramps, elevators, and the like) at a cost of $300-$500 million[12]. Thus, even if 1,000 bike riders crossed the 4.5 mile bridge every day for the next decade, the cost per crossing would exceed $80. (Caltrans currently runs a van to take bikers across the bridge for $1.00/crossing). If it was smart to have a pedestrian path, couldn’t that have been decided a decade ago?

The railway story is equally confounding[13]. BART currently operates in a tunnel beneath the Bay, but many thought that adding a light rail option to the bridge would make sense. It is clear that trains can carry far more people across a bridge than cars (and collect more tolls). But the politics involved were decisive and the light rail expansion never took root. Thus, expansion of the Bay Area light rail will either require another tunnel[14], another Bay bridge, or a $3-5b bridge enhancement[15].

There are many lessons in this story, but I will focus on four which arise from these questions:

  1. Why did it take so long?
  2. Why did it cost so much?
  3. How were the key decisions made?
  4. What are the implications?


Why did it take so long? In 1929, there was a desire for a bridge across San Francisco Bay, but far less need. Of course, in 1989 there was a functioning bridge, so one could argue that there was less urgency. The urgency in 1989 was based upon safety concerns and the odds of another major earthquake. But then, in 1929 they started from scratch whereas in 1989 they only needed to replace or repair an existing structure. So, we’re not able to easily compare the processes. The CTBA (1929) produced studies and bids in four years and built their bridge in three years and five months. Had Caltrans (1989) equaled that accomplishment, the new East Span would have opened before the end of 1996.


The first delay was in deciding that something needed to be done, soon followed by deciding what. It doesn’t seem to take too much insight or expertise to grasp that a 54 year old bridge that had partially collapsed during an earthquake needed more than a patch. It didn’t take the experts and bureaucrats long to decide that the West Span could be retro-fitted and made prudently safe: its design was suited for the Bay Area’s seismic problems. The East Span was a different story and although the engineers said that it could also be retro-fitted, there were more doubts and the costs were greater. Replacement was the obvious choice – but it was also the choice that led to so much delay.


We build plenty of bridges and have superb bridge engineers and builders. If California had had good leadership, they would have quickly ascertained the public interest in having a safe and functional replacement bridge, given Caltrans clear direction and authority for having it built, and funded it through diverse sources. After all, it was a bridge across two counties which carried an Interstate highway (I-80). In short, the reason the bridge took so long to build was a lack of leadership at the state level.


Why did it cost so much? The CTBA built the entire bridge (West and East Spans) for $77 million (about $910 million in 2006 dollars[16]), thus a $1.3b price for the replacement of the East Span alone was more than a substantial price increase. It can be assumed that a stronger, safer, and better bridge should cost more and it can be argued that more modern worker safety requirements, environmental awareness, and public input procedures inherently and justifiably increase construction costs. If the bridge had been built for $1.3b instead of TEN times that much, there would be little concern.


Looking at it another way, we have to wonder how replacing half a bridge became the largest public works outlay in California history (the iconic Golden Gate Bridge cost $515 million[17] in 2006 dollars). Was it that we simply had that kind of money to “throw away”? In the 90s, California was undoubtedly feeling serious economic pressures building and there were substantial budgetary battles underway. Pete Wilson's administration (1991) inherited the state's worst economy since the Great Depression and while the rest of the country was recovering from an economic slump. Reductions in defense spending, natural disasters, and poor fiscal management had resulted in a much longer and far deeper recession than endured by the rest of the nation. In other words, California was not in some economic boon period with nice budget surpluses – quite the contrary.


The key factor leading to a $13 billion dollar bridge instead of a $1.3 billion dollar bridge was the desire to create a “work of art” more than a bridge. The progression was an astonishing example of bureaucratic bumbling… Because officials wanted an icon, squabbling about the artistic design and the positioning of the span delayed construction for a decade and led to getting only one bid. Because officials couldn’t get their act together, the single bid was lost. Millions and millions[18] were wasted on studies and reviews which finally showed that the artistic design sought by some officials wouldn’t be fabricated in the United States by American workers. Meanwhile, the cost of financing the bridge doubled and because federal financing might have required American steel to be used, officials chose to pay extra to have the bridge built in China (“saving” $400 million but not making use of the $642 million available from the federal Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Fund).


How were the decisions made? Any large project requires leadership and generally, the larger the project the greater the need for leadership. The Bay Bridge repair and replacement was going to be a large project even before it needlessly became the largest in state history. At the very least it was going to be necessary to coordinate between several local governments and numerous agencies. And, of course, there was going to be a need to cooperate with federal authorities. Someone needed to be in a position to lead and direct the cooperation. Instead we got a hodgepodge of commissions, committees, and groups that lacked direction and cooperative nature.


The leadership problem began with the Governor’s office. Caltrans has a budget of more than $13 billion and is tasked with providing leadership in planning and building California transportation systems (with over 20,000 employees). Had the project been assigned to Caltrans with a mandate from the Governor to lead the project, all the other agencies and groups would have been compelled to accept Caltrans guidance and direction. Instead, Mayors, special interest groups, and other governmental agencies were allowed to “derail” the project (to the point where it doesn’t even include railway). The remarkable thing about these other groups is their massive lack of civic, social, and economic responsibility. If there is any one of them which had the best interests of average Californians in mind, they were silenced or ignored.


 What are the implications? The Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge repair and replacement project demonstrates the five basic reasons we are in decline as a nation:

1.       Our leaders fail to lead.

2.       Our government is controlled by greed.

3.       Our resources are being squandered and stolen.

4.       The people are insufficiently involved, informed, or concerned.

5.       Too many of us have become fat, lazy, and stupid.

Harsh, yes. True, unfortunately. Fixable, maybe.


The ability to lead is based upon skill, desire and opportunity. Leadership is a learned skill, but merely having the skill is not enough – one has to want to lead. Unfortunately, too many who want to lead lack the skills needed.  And, too often, the ones who have the skill and the desire to lead are not given the opportunity. One of the great attributes of our nation has been its ability to create great leaders and to give them the opportunity to do so. If anyone doubts that we continue to create such leaders, then we need only point them to the military. America is overflowing with leaders who aren’t leading because they are not enabled to lead. And, even when we manage to give them the opportunity to lead, they are thwarted by bureaucracy and systematic deficiencies.


We reject tyrannical and abusive leadership and have developed systematic checks and balances to protect us from such “leaders”. And, we value public input and seek to enable everyone to have a voice in how our society functions. We somehow thought that by having more agencies, committees, and action groups our voices would be better heard. And, in turn, we have made leadership a trying, frustrating, and risky endeavor. It is little wonder that our most qualified leaders choose to avoid public service – our government has devolved such that leadership is avoided , dissipated, and undermined. The many ways in which this happens is beyond the scope of this writing, but one needs only explore the Bay Bridge project to see the many facets of the leadership problem at work.


Greed is running rampant in America. Mostly, this is because we have been taught to be greedy and that being greedy “works”. Greed has taken control of “big business” and big business has taken control of our government. This is not a revelation or even news; it is both apparent and well known. The political “fixes” are well established (see http://www.buddyroemer.com/node/44), but the core problem is generally ignored. Changes in laws, rules, and policies can only make greed harder to practice, not diminish greed itself.


We will never be freed of greed; it is in our nature. We can, however, hope to overcome greed with something better and there are plenty of options: love, compassion, selflessness, caring, service, and duty are just a few. But those things have to be learned and they are best learned through example. Since we are in a downward spiral of greed where there are far too many examples of “successful greediness”, our only hope is to break that cycle. That will require a social consciousness which will only happen with better leadership. Uh, oh.


It’s bad enough that our tax dollars, charitable contributions, and donations are wasted and misused, but when we view our greatest resources as integrity, loyalty, and rationality, a bigger problem emerges. Greed takes more than our fiscal and material resources, it corrodes away our greater resources. Greed leads to dishonesty, undermines loyalty, and outweighs reason. Thus, we find ourselves swamped by those who ignore facts and reality, who cheat and steal from those who empowered them, and who fabricate excuses and grounds for choices that are simply crazy. Instead of penalizing greed, we idolize its best practitioners. Thus, it will only get worse.


You would think that the American people would be almost “up in arms” (as if that would solve the problem). Instead they are generally uninvolved, easily misinformed, and seemingly unconcerned. Historically, peoples have dealt with excessive greed through militant means, but the greedy have learned their lesson and such means are basically unavailable in most of the modern world. (At the time of the American Revolution and in poorer nations, a large group with pitchforks and basic firearms – a militia – can face and defeat an army fronted by the greedy). Unless and until we can develop effective new means to confront the greedy, they will rule us. I suggest that we start by being informed, involved, and vigilant (in a smart and honorable way).


Too many of us have become fat, lazy, and stupid (and I don’t necessarily mean overweight). We are intellectually “fat” because we stuff our brains full of “saturated bullshit”, “empty ideas”, and “high fructose distractions”. There is simply a lack of intellectual “meat” in most of our lives. There’s plenty around and it’s more nutritional, but we lack the discipline to turn away from mental junk food. (Current readers are the obvious exceptions). To finish this analogy: on an intellectual basis, it is as though we wait for someone else to select our food, chew it for us, and then tell us whether we enjoyed it or not.


On an intellectual basis, we have become fat, lazy, and stupid. Our obesity epidemic is minor compared to our educational epidemic. And, like fixing our eating problems, the solutions involve more than “dieting”. We can’t cure our social stupidity by simply “eating smarter” (although teaching smarter would be a good place to start). As in weight reduction, you have to start by valuing your health and finding the motivation to take action. Unless and until we restore the value of “being educated” and provide incentives for integrity, loyalty, and rationality, we are going to sink into the abyss like a bridge built without footings.


[1] Specifically, the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. For a more detailed analysis and a source relied upon, see http://sfpublicpress.org/news/2009-12/unparalleled-bridge-unprecedented-cost.

[2] Caltrans is the California Department of Transportation. For publications related to this article, see: http://www.dot.ca.gov/baybridge/. Also note http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/04/13/04-013.pdf.

[3] A Dec., 1996 study by Ventry Engineering of Florida recommended replacing the east span and estimated the cost at $843 million for a cable-stayed suspension bridge.

[4] For a full listing of dates and review committees, see http://www.mtc.ca.gov/planning/bay_bridge/bbhist.htm.

[5] T.Y. Lin International and Moffatt & Nichol Engineers.

[6] Under federal fund contracting law, all steel and iron manufacturing processes must occur in the United States unless it is demonstrated that no American supplier can provide the same product  within 25% of the foreign cost.

[8] It was reported that the average ZPMC fabricator was paid $9-$12/day for a 14 hour workday (living in company dorms).

[9] In order to insure that component fabrication meets contract standards, Caltrans and ABF have sent over 250 inspectors to ZPMC’s facility in Shanghai (the Caltrans inspectors are paid by Caltrans at public expense). Few argue that the resulting product will be sub-standard although there have been concerns about weld quality (which are not uncommon in any large project).

[12] http://www.mtc.ca.gov/planning/bay_bridge/west_span_bike_ped/Presentation_12-13-11.pdf and http://www.mtc.ca.gov/planning/bay_bridge/west_span_bike_ped/FAQ_12-13-11.pdf. The SFBC (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition) suggests a $200 million price as a “drop in the ocean” (4%) compared to the span cost to date.

[13] See http://www.oaklandbridge.com/rail.html and related sources cited there.

[16] Using the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics CPI calculator.

[17] The 1932 bond issue for the Golden Gate Bridge was for $35 million and the total construction cost (with ancillary construction) came in slightly below that. It included $27,125,000 for the construction of the structure, $2,050,000 for Engineering and Inspection, $423,000 for Administrative and Preliminary Expenses, $4,068,000 for Financing, and $1,334,000 in surplus. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/ConstructionPrimeContr.php.

[18] Eventually, over $500 million was spent just on “studies” – including studies which estimated that the entire bridge would cost about that much. See http://cdm15025.contentdm.oclc.org/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/p266401coll4&CISOPTR=576&filename=577.pdf.









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