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January 2005





San Francisco Bay Bridge Bridges
The price of living in the Bay Area

Last month, the Millau Viaduct opened in France. Meanwhile, here in California, the governor 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 (well, 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 the 1989 Loma Prieta 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.

2005 Happy New Year
Reasons to be cheerful

Tucker Carlson just got the arse from CNN's CrossFire. If you've never encountered Tucker Carlson, this is all the introduction you need.

The San Francisco 49ers' owner, John York, fired coach Dennis Erickson and GM Terry Donahue. Now he just needs to fire himself.

John Ashcroft, freed from the constraints of being Attorney General, is now free to pursue his singing career.

Barry Zito is still on the Oakland A's roster – too bad Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder aren't. Another one to blame on the peculiar financial landscape of baseball in general, and the Oakland Athletics in particular.

And finally, Mark Morford is still writing inspirational and hilarious columns on sfgate, just as he's done for the last several years.

© Andy Currid 2004-2005