Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wanna Blight a Bridge?

It's not really a big surprise that California is in trouble when its governor, the star of such cinematic classics as Jingle All the Way, Twins and Red Sonja, ends up in charge of aesthetic decisions. But it seems Arnold wants the new east section of the Bay Bridge--which has to be replaced to keep it from killing more people in the next earthquake--to be a simple, make that simply ugly, viaduct.

What's worse is even Democrats seem on-board the "freeway on stilts" express. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported:

What the bridge will look like, however, is taking a back seat to how much less it could cost to build, and how long changing the design might delay its opening.

Oakland mayor's opinion

In the late '90s, the charge for a signature span was led in part by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "When we rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, " he wrote in a 1998 Chronicle opinion piece, "we must create a spectacular structure that expresses the daring of human ingenuity and symbolizes the splendor of Oakland and the East Bay.''

And now?

Brown will settle for anything, "as long as it's something that will stand up in an earthquake,'' said his press secretary, Gil Duran. "It's not about style anymore; it's about substance. Haggling about a pretty bridge--that time is over.''

Then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was another loud voice against Caltrans' original "freeway on stilts" design. He and other politicians even got four cities to pass advisory measures calling for the span to be made strong and wide enough to allow for rail, advice Caltrans ignored.

San Francisco's current mayor, Gavin Newsom, has indicated little interest in the new span's design. Last week, he didn't return calls seeking comment.

Haggling? Haggling is what you do in a Monty Python skit. We're talking San Francisco here, folks. My guess is most people don't know that the phrase Golden Gate refers to the actual cut from the Bay to the Pacific--for most of the the U.S., probably the world, the Golden Gate is that picturesque bridge.

Bridges are never just transportation, they are metaphor, dream, humankind's ability to overcome air with big heavy things. For a long time. Imagine Florence without the Ponte Vecchio, London without Tower Bridge, the Tacoma Narrows without...oops, well, that just goes to show how important bridges are. When they fail, it's news for over 60 years.

To stress the myopia in Sacramento, it's important to hear what State Transportation Secretary (AKA Arnold appointee) Sunne Wright McPeak tells the Sacramento Bee: "The skyway allows one who is driving to see the beautiful vistas of the bay. You get gorgeous views. You still have the vistas."

If you're on the bridge.

But we don't think about the views from bridges, we think about how bridges add to the view. The view from the Golden Gate, a full suspension bridge, is just as lovely with some cables in the way, which even do some framing (which makes things "arty," which might be too girlie man for Arnold). But imagine there was merely a viaduct over Fort Point into Sausalito. It might as well be the highway off-ramp to nowhere.

The kicker, of course, is it's not even clear if switching bridge design plans now will save money or time, as the original design--a viaduct leading into a soaring, self-anchored suspension section close to Yerba Buena Island--is already in progress and a complete viaduct will mean sinking supports into the deepest part of the bay, a possible seismic and ecological risk.

Still, Schwarzenegger, both Browns, and Newsom really need to re-think this one. Public beauty matters or we will just keep getting politicians who are as debased as the world we must live in. That which is ennobling, challenging, the evidence of how artfully we can overcome challenges--it all gets pushed out of our lives as we get to accomplish little of value, buy much too much to make up for the utter pettiness of our lives and ways of making "livings," and turn to TV for conversation-fodder, comfort, companionship, and the cues as to what we must buy to get by.

Oh, so that's their plan....


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