Troubled bridge over bay waters

SUN JOURNAL

California: A proposed span between San Francisco and Oakland, to replace one damaged in an earthquake, is opposed by mayors at both ends.

July 16, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- When it comes to wielding political power in California politics, San Francisco's Mayor Willie Brown and Oakland's Mayor Jerry Brown are the masters.

Their experience spans decades -- Jerry Brown is a former governor and Willie Brown was the wily Svengali of the state Assembly. They schmooze in the same political circles and they know precisely what buttons to push, what phone calls to make to get what they want.

So when the two Browns voiced opposition earlier this year to a state agency's proposal to build an elaborate new San Francisco Bay Bridge and demolish the existing one that was damaged in a 1989 earthquake, everyone stopped to listen.

But this time, the mayors haven't gotten their way -- so far.

The flamboyant Willie Brown at first supported the plan developed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Now he says the agency's decision to push the northern alignment of the proposed new bridge onto the Yerba Buena Island -- site of a former naval base -- will stymie future development throughout the area and possibly destroy some of the historic sites on the island.

Jerry Brown has opposed the plan from the beginning. He says the design is, well, just downright ugly.

"What they're planning on building is a mediocre freeway on stilts," Jerry Brown says. "We should have a great world-class bridge here in the Bay Area . . . but it appears that the bureaucrats want a bureaucratic design. It's really awful."

Everyone in the Bay Area agrees that the 63-year-old bridge has to be replaced. More than 275,000 motorists travel across it every day, heightening safety concerns.

"Every time I drive across the bridge, I get a bit nervous," says Oakland resident Shelley Swartz, who works as an insurance agent in San Francisco. "It's a little unsettling knowing that the bridge is still operational, yet a piece of it is in dire need of repair. It's kind of scary."

The powerful Loma Prieta earthquake a decade ago caused chunks of the 8 1/2-mile platform bridge to cave in. State officials have allocated more than $1.5 billion to replace it.

"We are really competing against time," says Denis Mulligan, manager of the State Toll Bridge Program. "The last earthquake was a Santa Cruz earthquake that was 60 miles away, and it did quite a bit of damage to the bridge."

Still, for months, the mayors have been trying to persuade transportation officials to toss out their design and start over.

Willie Brown even commissioned a Sacramento-based engineering consulting firm to design a new plan in February. His plan would require that the alignment of the bridge be routed elsewhere, bypassing a major portion of the island. He says it would save the state $57,328 and ensure that the bridge would be completed sometime next year.

But the transportation commission and Caltrans, the state transportation agency overseeing the construction, have resisted the mayors' demands. They say they have already invested more than $40 million in designing the plan and they have no intention of starting over.

"The state legislature gave us the power of refereeing the design competition," says Steve Hemminger, the deputy director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "We completed our work. It was a fair and open process, but we didn't please everyone -- including the two mayors."

Frustrated, the mayors asked their Democratic friend, Gov. Gray Davis, to overrule the transportation commission and adopt Willie Brown's plan. But Davis startled them last month by announcing that he stands by the commission's design.

"The governor did the right thing and is supporting our recommendation," Hemminger says. "Our goal is to move forward with what we have. We can't really afford to wait any longer. This is a public safety issue."

But as state officials started to claim victory, hoping to begin construction of the bridge by the end of this year, a new roadblock has stalled the process.

The United States Navy, which owns the 150-acre Yerba Buena Island, refuses to allow Caltrans access to the parts of the island where holes must be drilled to lay the foundation of the bridge.

"The portion of the island that we need access to is not even being occupied," Mulligan says. "What the Navy is doing is very, very frustrating."

Several calls to Navy officials were not returned.

Mary V. King, an Alameda County supervisor who chaired the Bay Bridge Design Task Force, believes the Navy is denying access to parts of the island because of pressure from Willie Brown.

"We have been unable to determine the Navy's true objection," she says. "The only thing that I can think of is that they are being influenced by Mayor Willie Brown."

He scoffs at her suspicion.

"The bottom line is that the plan that we proposed is more practical," he says, noting that developers might decide to help boost the area's tourism economy by later building on the portion of the island where state officials hope the construction of the bridge will take place.

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