A Better Way, Oui?


Los Angeles Times

December 24, 2004

Call greasy potatoes "freedom fries" if you like, but what can you call the French bridge across the Tarn River Valley except heavenly, delicate and more than a little breathtaking?

We'd call it something like a Gallic slap to California's pride, just days after the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration junked plans for a similarly innovative suspension design across part of San Francisco Bay. Instead, the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which must be rebuilt for earthquake safety, is now planned as a flat concrete causeway from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island.

The French didn't just beat California in the artsy department. That, at least, would be so French. No, they outdid us in the very areas that are supposed to be hallmarks of American ingenuity. The Millau Viaduct was built quickly, efficiently and with private investment for about $500 million, one-tenth the cost of the Bay Bridge estimates and in less than one-third the time it's taken Northern California politicians just to argue about it. The Bay Bridge's costs would have to be higher — it's a smidge longer, built over water instead of a canyon and in the heart of earthquake territory.

But 10 times more?

It didn't help that dueling mayors in Oakland and San Francisco wasted time arguing over the route and that even proven engineering designs were rejected as too daring. In a decade of delay, the price of concrete and steel soared and the bridge plan deflated.

The San Francisco supervisors' only concrete reaction so far has been to vote to change the name of the Bay Bridge to the Emperor Norton Bridge, in honor of a 19th century local loony who proclaimed himself ruler of the world. Not ones to embrace levity, Oakland leaders object.

Resentment, though, doesn't build a bridge. Nor does the insistence of Bay Area leaders that the state of California should underwrite the full cost of the bridge, minus what an already-imposed small increase in the bridge toll will contribute.

If Bay Area politicians still want a crack at a signature span, start with the public-private partnership of the Millau model, quick agreement on a practical but good-looking design and local willingness to pay the price for local beauty. The Bay Bridge toll rose a dollar, to $3. The French pay $7 per car to traverse the shorter Millau. Even the Golden Gate costs $5.

The Millau Viaduct looks like a gateway to heaven. If Oakland and San Francisco can't get beyond whining that deficit-ridden Sacramento should pay, they'll end up with a causeway to Yerba Buena.