Millau Viaduct opened in France. Meanwhile, here in California, the
announced a scaling back of plans to build a new eastern span of the
San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.
The French bridge is stunning. Designed by
Norman Foster, it took around three years to build and cost around $530
million at today's euro-dollar exchange rates. It's one of those relatively
rare, man-made objects that enhances the beauty of the landscape into which
it is placed. San Francisco's
Golden Gate bridge, built in the 1930s, can claim a similar effect. It's
hard to imagine a view of the Marin Headlands from San Francisco's
north-western waterfront without the rust red bridge fronting it – and,
if you can imagine it, it's a lame view without the bridge.
The less celebrated Bay Bridge isn't quite in the same league, but for me it's
the defining element of the landscape around here. It's actually two bridges
three to be precise), connecting Oakland and San Francisco via
Yerba Buena island.
I've often thought that the Bay Bridge's spans reflect the common perception of
the cities they connect. The western span, a suspension bridge,
has the aesthetics, drama and flamboyance of San Francisco, arcing over the
city's Embarcadero before touching down south of Market. After eight years of
living here, I still cannot take an evening drive over the bridge without being
awed by the view of San Francisco as I emerge from the Yerba Buena tunnel. It's
equally impressive as you descend Harrison Street to the Embarcadero and see
the bridge leaping off into the distance, back to Yerba Buena island. It's not
the prettiest suspension bridge, but it's almost an integral part of the city,
making it far more of an icon for me than the Golden Gate bridge. Unless you
live in Marin, the Golden Gate bridge is mostly an afterthought, a distant
pretty backdrop that, like Pier 39, conveniently pulls the tourists away from
the locals' hangouts.
The eastern span, a cantilever, has a utilitarian practicality
and dourness to it that reflects many people's view of Oakland – not that
it's impossible to build a stunning cantilever bridge (the
Forth railway bridge proves that point), but the eastern span doesn't
win any prizes around here. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the eastern
span is that it is at risk of collapse whenever the ground shakes, as it did in
earthquake. Ever since then, local and state powers have been collectively
wringing their hands about its replacement.
To replace the eastern span in the early 1990s would have been expensive.
Over a decade later, the cost is almost prohibitive – having passed
$4 billion, it's currently over eight times that of the Millau Viaduct (though
the Bay Bridge already carries about 250000 vehicles a day; ten times the
amount the Millau Viaduct is expected to carry). The cost, like that of many
things round here, rises at a rate that far outstrips inflation and, now that
the California economy is in heavy deficit, the state's ability to pay.
In that light, the governor's recent decision to reject plans for a so-called
'signature' design in favor of something plain and practical (a 'freeway on
stilts') seems to be laudably pragmatic – maybe the bridge might now be
completed in time for the 20th anniversary of Loma Prieta.
But there's something rather depressing about the whole affair, for despite the
world-class optimism and bluster of the Californian psyche, this suggests we're
decidely second rate when it comes to execution and delivery. If nothing else,
we seem to be slowly drifting into a second class existence, not least in part
because of the price of our own labor and our way of life.
It seems to me that it has been this way for a while, but only recently have
people started paying attention. Housing is no longer widely affordable, even
to people holding down relatively good jobs. Health insurance is becoming a
luxury that an increasing number forego in favor of more pressing priorities
such as food and shelter. California schools are the worst funded in the
country and perform commensurately. Maybe one crap bridge would be a reasonable
memorial to this period if it's sufficient to kick us out of the current cycle
we appear to be in.