Losing The Race Against Time Essay

3200 words - 13 pages

Losing the Race Against Time: Rebuilding the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
During rush hour on October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a fifty-foot section of roadway deck on the ten-lane Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland, California. The entire nation knew almost immediately, because a Goodyear blimp was nearby to broadcast Game One of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, aptly referred to as the “Bay Bridge Series.” The vital transportation artery was reopened to traffic after 32 days of repairs, but a survey of conducted by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) concluded that any retrofit would be extremely ...view middle of the document...

Even taking advantage of Yerba Buena Island, a small rise of shale rock midway between the shores of San Francisco and Oakland, there remain two sections of water, each nearly two miles wide. The water is over a hundred feet deep in places, and the underlying Bay mud is deep and unstable. When finished in 1936, the 4.36-mile2 Bay Bridge was the longest steel highlevel bridge in the world3 and the most expensive civil engineering project ever built. But considering both length and number of lanes, it was six times more economical than the George Washington Bridge that joined New Jersey and Manhattan five years earlier. Twenty years later, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Bay Bridge one of the “seven engineering wonders of the world.”4 Despite the inability of one of its spans to meet current seismic safety standards, the original bridge was a monumental achievement, incorporating innovative and economical design and construction techniques brilliantly tailored to the uniquely challenging site conditions. The East span replacement project is demonstrating that the challenges posed by bridging the Bay are no less difficult today: The East side of Yerba Buena Island will not support a suspension cable; the Island’s bedrock drops off sharply toward the deepwater channel; and the Bay mud beneath the entire span makes the construction of piers extremely expensive. The goal of reconstruction, therefore, should be to employ modern bridge technologies that allow today’s engineers to solve these problems with elegance and efficiency. A Modern Political Quagmire Few engineers, politicians, or citizens disagree with the decision by the California Department of Transportation to replace the East span of the Bay Bridge after the Loma Prieta earthquake. That, however, seems to be the only uncontroversial bridge-related decision that the State of California and its agencies have made since the disaster. Caltrans’ first mistake was to begin the design process in-house. Its engineers are very experienced at building overpasses and on-ramps, but have little knowledge of long span bridges. In 1996, Caltrans engineers presented two preliminary designs. The first was a towerless 2.2-mile causeway euphemistically referred to as the “skyway.” The second was a skyway with a rather ungainly cable-stayed span whose two sideby- side A-frame towers each straddled a five-lane deck.5 Caltrans publicized the merits of the skyway, highlighting its simple elegance and smaller price tag. (In late 1996, Caltrans estimated that the skyway would cost $1 billion.)6 But when sketches were published in local newspapers, there was an immediate outcry from politicians, citizens, and designers. Some accused the design of resembling a two-mile-long freeway onramp, while several of the more constructive critics called for an open and juried international design competition.7 Concerned with aesthetics, none focused on the fact that the designs were fundamentally inappropriate...

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