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How playing double jeopardy cost us $3.6B

POSTED September 14, 2013 12:01 a.m.

What’s in a name?
That’s a $6.4 billion question.
There is a move afoot to name the western span of the Bay Bridge after Willie Brown.
Willie Brown is a former two-term mayor of San Francisco who — unless term limits are dropped — will hold the record in perpetuity of being the longest serving Assembly Speaker in California history. He held that position for 14 years.
There are liberal politicians in San Francisco who oppose the proposal contending Willie Brown was controversial. Duh. He’s from San Francisco.
Personally, I say go ahead and name the western suspension span the Willie Brown Bridge. And while the California Legislature is at it, they should name the new eastern single suspension span the Jerry Brown Bridge.
That way it would be the Brown Bridge all the way from the blacktop of Oakland freeways to the shores of San Francisco. The bridge and its name would stand as a monument to grandiose design, delivering the political bacon, and soaring cost overruns — three things that the two Browns and the eastern span well represent.
The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors in 2004 wanted the new span named the “Emperor Norton I Bridge.” That was a nod to post Gold Rush San Francisco character Joshua A. Norton who went about The City as the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
Oakland’s City Council rejected the proposal. They were probably jealous because they didn’t have their own crackpots at the time to name the bridge after. Now at least they could suggest the Occupy Movement Bridge since those crackpots are still roaming the streets of Oakland. Besides, providing pedestrian access to Yerba Buena Island on the new span will create the potential for protesters to shut down the Bay Bridge like they have done the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s only a matter of time before the Occupy Anything folks will figure that one out.
By naming one after Willie Brown and the other after Jerry Brown, the two separate spans that constitute the Bay Bridge would have one unifying name. That’s a nice symbolic touch uniting a city that’s viewed as one of the greatest in the world and is known sometimes as Baghdad by the Bay with another that some view cynically as the Detroit of the West.
But it would be a name that would reflect why the new bridge had a $3.6 billion cost overrun Caltrans — a state agency that strives not to get into the business of delivering bacon unless forced to by their bosses in the legislature — originally rolled out a straightforward solution to replace the unsafe cantilever bridge. But the design was dismissed by politicians and many others as merely a “freeway on stilts.” No, the Bay Area deserved something much better. After all it isn’t Fresno and Bakersfield that have to settle for functional and efficient Caltrans bridge designs.
So then Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and his counterpart across the Bay threw the equivalent of a political hissy fit. Both wanted bridges that made a statement with Jerry Brown saying Oakland deserved a more fitting bridge.
This may have escaped the then mayor, but a freeway on stilts would pretty much fit the East Bay when compared to the Peninsula. Thank goodness sewer system designs aren’t subject to the aesthetics of community boosterism. Making this the more ironic, most people who use the bridge do so either to flee the East Bay to reach jobs in the The City, or others in the greater NorCal region who have to pass through the East Bay to reach the cultural and recreational Mecca known as San Francisco. 
In short, the bridge is more about San Francisco than Oakland.
If you doubt that, in the two years of bickering after politicians killed Caltrans’ sensible approach, three alternative routes were explored. The one that prevailed wasn’t the least expensive but it was the superior vanity option allowing the best commanding views of San Francisco and was located to best enhance City of San Francisco real estate on Yerba Buena Island. 
And to make sure he got his way, Willie Brown for another two-year period thwarted Caltrans from doing critical soil tests on Yerba Buena Island.
What started out as an urgent project to ensure public safety following a section of the bridge’s collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake morphed into an ego-soothing and property value enhancing project of San Francisco’s political power structure as well as a pseudo civic boost for Oakland’s sullen image.
And if for no other reason why the older western span should be named after Willie Brown, it was his insistence on a specific alignment of the new eastern span that is making it possible for Yerba Buena to eventually have a mind-boggling 17,000 residents under development plans ultimately approved by his predecessors.
By naming the western span the Willie Brown Bridge, the motoring public can be reminded in the future when traffic going to and from Yerba Buena Island that makes using the bridge a commuter nightmare. And with the eastern span named after Jerry Brown, they can be reminded why they are paying higher tolls than needed to pay for a $6.4 million statement instead of a $2.8 billion bridge.
That way the bridge could be nicknamed: “Double Jeopardy Bridge.”
Heck they could even sell naming rights to Alex Trebek.
Today’s Double Jeopardy answer: “Willie Brown and Jerry Brown.”
“Name the two politicians responsible for the biggest cost overrun in the history of California bridge projects.”


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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