September 2, 2013
Despite its gleaming single tower, the East Span of the Bay Bridge from its opening on September 3 is a huge white elephant, a fiasco of public investment. Leaving aside the 24 years it took to build, at $6.5 Billion the span cost more than three times a reasonable price, and ten times the estimated cost of the simple seismic retrofit that would have handled its transportation and safety functions.
A blow-by-blow study of this grim epic by Karen Frick has just been published in UC’s ACCESS transportation magazine. Lisa Vordebruegen in the Contra Costa Times has also covered it well.
In a coherent regional political system at least one executive head would roll for such a misspending of dollars in the billions, maybe that of Steve Heminger, staff chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). But that is unlikely to happen. With an ever-changing cast of characters, and with big technical issues that themselves proved problematical although they were never at the heart of the public policy question, too much time and too many committees have gone by. We will have a sunny ribbon cutting ceremony rather than a realistic project post-mortem.
Still, six and a half billion dollars for one bridge is a lot of money-- for comparison, over four times the cost of extending BART to SFO and Milbrae, an earlier regional transportation misfire.
Spending $6.5B of public funds for an infrastructure element that should have cost less than one billion for a seismic retrofit, or $2B for a reasonable new span, was a significant failure of the Bay Area decision-making process. It is a $4.5B setback in hard cash, but also an alarm bell, a symptom of a broader deficiency. If we are smart we will study, recognize, and fix it.
Ultimately the Eastern Span blowout is a result of the refusal for decades by the cities of the Bay Area to recognize that we are all in one geographic and economic boat and to allow the nine-county Bay Area to live and govern itself--and to plan--as the metropolitan region that it is. Population growth has been steady and will continue, but serious innovation in our region’s way of living has been turned into a steep uphill climb by the conservative resistance doggedly put up by many localities and agencies against any cooperation they see as weakening their prerogatives.
The two indivisible sides of regional management and planning are transportation and “land use.”
The new Eastern Span was shaped in a period, ending only in the last year or so, when transportation was planned by the MTC under an excessive lingering influence of the classic highway-building outlook, serving the automobile and the suburb.
The Bay Area’s land use planning function (deciding what is to be built where) was jealously atomized and guarded by each of the region’s 100+ cities, represented by ABAG. Brandishing the hallowed principle of “local control,” the cities did not much want either to coordinate land use among themselves nor to bring major building and development decisions into a rational relationship with regional transportation planning.
This impasse, and local resistance to seeing things regionally, gave an extended lease on life to the region’s traditional shape since World War II, based on the freeway, the car and on sending growth to its far outer edges. That formula is summarized by the expression “sprawl.”
Even after BART was built, good old sprawl, expensive in time, energy and money, rolled on through the seventies, eighties and nineties under the sway of cultural inertia and the contented gaze of vested interests that saw it not just as the best way, but the only way for Americans to live. Working planners had the slimmest licence to conceive a different future, and they didn’t much do it, although the Bay Area’s own professor Robert Cervero saw the need for post-suburban growth clearly in his planning classroom at Berkeley and his books had great sway in places like Scandinavia, Canada and the World Bank.
Planning was so balkanized and separated into silos that a transportation project could not be evaluated as an alternative to a land use project, or vice versa. Indeed, land use projects beyond the scale of an individual city, could not really be imagined. As the Eastern Span’s cost escalated wildly, it was no part of the process or the system to compare it to alternatives, to say, “Is this the best expenditure of billions the region can make in its future?”
Most specifically, there was no intellectual or institutional way to say: “The region’s central problem is its long-term shortage and high cost of housing. How does that need compare with its need for a second bridge to compete in sublimity with the Golden Gate Bridge?”
That’s the sort of question that answers itself -- if it can be raised. Obviously, less costly housing is more important for the region’s people and its economy. Moreover, a way of investing public funds to lower the costs of both housing and transportation exists in the fostering of “transit oriented development.”
But asking to compare housing investments with spending to add elegance to a bridge is a question that could never be asked under the old dispensation of a Chinese wall between land use decision-making and transportation planning. The outrageous cost of the Bay Bridge’s Eastern Span was a case of being dragged deeper and deeper, for lack of an alternative, into an investment project that wasn’t working out. In this case, it was not even a matter of a “shovel-ready” alternative, but just a conceptual one.
As the slippery slope was carrying regional and state officials working on the replacement bridge past the two billion mark, then the four billion mark and finally to six billion dollars, no one could say a firm “No!” That was because the region had no vision of the needed different future. There was no list of future-shaping projects, such as a serious TOD program, or even “bringing electrified Caltrain downtown,” whose settled merits made it obviously crazy to spend the whole kitty on just a fancy form for one bridge.
Until the recent passage of California Senator Darrell Steinberg’s SB 375, the Bay Area really had no concept of a purposeful vision for itself that went much beyond more of the same old sprawl with a dollop of BART extensions.
But now, thanks to California’s newly-required Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), and thanks to the state’s path-breaking anti-carbon legislation, and to the just-completed Plan Bay Area exercise which attempted at long last to integrate land use and transportation planning, we are in a better place.
We can move toward slaying the dragons of high-cost housing, the long family-sapping commute in congested traffic, high carbon emissions, and the $8,000 annual cost for each of a household’s second, third and fourth cars. More of us will be riding an improved transit system more often, and more of us will be living, working and going to school in a somewhat more urban style that feels a little more like a European city and less like 1970’s Los Angeles.
Independent market trends, including the culture of our smarter younger people, are moving in that direction.
If MTC and ABAG can step up their leadership by following this modern crowd from the front, bringing good engineering and sharp pencils, there should be no further wandering into quagmires like the East Span of the Bay Bridge.
P. Lydon, Berkeley