New bridge: Marvel or costly burden?

September 4, 2009 7:23:25 PM PDT
The original Bay Bridge was a marvel of engineering back in 1936. Its engineers thought it would withstand the most powerful earthquake. The new Bay Bridge is designed with today's newest technology to keep it safe in a quake. But some engineers and politicians still see it as unproven, and too costly.

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Detours, delays, and hopefully, no unforeseen drama. They are more aftermath from Loma Prieta, 20 years later. The inconvenience that comes with what will be a new marvel replacing an old one, if we're to believe the archives.

But even now, questions remain about what will be the Bay Area's newest landmark. Will be it stronger, or better? Was it even necessary?

"They did not think that the design they selected would be this costly and problematic," said UC Berkeley structural engineer Dr. Abolhasen Astaneh.

At a time when it is too late for debate, Dr. Astaneh provides more than a little institutional history. He is a structural engineer who looked at post-quake damage, who still wonders how we got from a simple retrofit, to what we have today.

"You just need to spend a very small amount -- $250 million, not $6 billion," he said.

Asked if this new bridge would be built in this economic climate, former Senate president Don Perata said, "No. It would be stillborn."

As former county supervisor, state assemblyman, and senator, Perata points out the new span is a survivor of political will from better times before the dot-coms busted and the prices of materials quadrupled.

"It will be in the double-billion digits by the time we're finished," said Perata.

And that, for what critics call an inferior, unproven, less elegant design.

As Dr. Astineh pointed out, we built the original span to heavier, military specifications. That lower deck would have carried tanks and troops in trains if the Japanese had invaded. This new one would not meet those specifications.

"It will not be as safe as a retrofitted old bridge," said Dr. Astineh. "Still, that holds."

But it will be much prettier, or so they say.

The original bridge promised to withstand wind, earthquake, anything on the West Coast. Same promises, new bridge, generations later.

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