The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was supposed to be the crowning glory of the bridge-builder’s art, gracefully echoing the rolling hills surrounding San Francisco Bay.
Yet as the project heads for a Labor Day opening after $6.4 billion and 15 years, the country’s most daringly iconic highway bridge stands as a poster child for those who think major infrastructure projects are wasteful.
From a spaghetti of freeways on the Oakland side, the span’s two broad 1.2-mile-long carriageways ascend like a pair of airport taxiways past the gantries of the sprawling port.
The viaduct’s massive hollow-concrete sections gently arch between piers and taper outward to bladelike edges that draw a thin elegant line above the water, belying the heft added to make them earthquake resistant. Designers lined the five auto lanes and two breakdown lanes with giant toothpicks serving as light fixtures.
The bridge culminates in a 2,000-foot-long suspension span tucked into the edge of craggy Yerba Buena Island. It became a multiyear bone of contention, bloating the bridge’s cost.
Technically it is a suspension bridge, like the glorious Golden Gate, but it is an engineering mutt. Instead of a soaring tower that straddles the roadways, a single mast rises between the carriageways from which cables spray in sloping planes to the outer edge of the roadway.
At this cockeyed slope the thick main cables look slack, muddling the silhouette.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake doomed the existing 1936 bridge, which possessed an ugly industrial majesty while confining drivers in a tunnel of steel braces.
The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, repaired much of the 4.3 miles of the Bay Bridge, including two spectacular suspension bridges that link San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island. After six years of study, Caltrans deemed a replacement of the East Span essential.
Citizens and officials demanded a bold, structurally expressive statement like the city’s other great bridges. That’s when the trouble began.
The single-mast suspension design selected in 1998 came from a joint venture of T.Y. Lin International and Moffatt & Nichol. It’s called self-anchoring because the cables fasten to the bridge deck rather than to hefty piers.
It’s an unusual design. It was selected, according to Marwan Nader, the lead design engineer for the joint venture, for the unique challenges it presented to engineers and because it was thought to echo the look of the famous local suspension bridges.
It was budgeted at $1 billion and scheduled for a 2004 opening.
The significant additional costs for the self-anchored design were known, but papered over at the time. It required the erection of an elaborate falsework, essentially a bridge on which to build a bridge. Other types of long-span bridges cost less because they don’t need the falsework.
“With the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, price didn’t seem to matter as much,” said Nader in an interview.
Then years of political wrangling ensued: about access ramps; about whether the Oakland side needed a “signature” element; about money, of course, since many aspects of the innovative design proved very difficult to build. As the clock ticked, costs rose.
A joint venture of the contractors American Bridge and Fluor Corp. would not start building the suspension span until 2006, eight years after it was selected.
The architects on the design team, led by Donald McDonald, didn’t know how to make the engineering sing, as architects truly attuned to engineering do. (I’m thinking of Norman Foster or the firm Wilkinson Eyre, both British firms that have built extraordinary infrastructure. I would add Santiago Calatrava, but his designs have defeated the depleted talents of American contractors, most appallingly in the budget-busting World Trade Center transit hub.)
The East Span designers seemed unaware that the single-mast design didn’t really look like a suspension bridge so they somehow convinced themselves that the goofy droop of the suspension cables was an elegant drape. They also fiddled with the look of the mast, yet it fails to soar inspiringly.
Higher tolls will pick up much of the additional cost.
The Bay Area recognized the value its great bridges have conferred. It’s too bad a bungled process didn’t deliver on the aspiration.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on books, James Clash on adventure.