Californians set a remarkable standard for construction of world-class bridges in the 1930s when they simultaneously built two magnificent spans over San Francisco Bay in three years.
On Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac presided over the opening of a soaring new bridge that rivals California's two masterpieces, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, in engineering audacity and efficiency.
With air force jets screaming overhead, Chirac declared the 885-foot-high, 1.6-mile-long bridge over the Tarn River in southern France - the world's highest vehicular span - to be a triumph of French technological acumen (although, in fact, it was designed by a British engineer).
"The Millau viaduct takes its place among our most shining works of civil engineering," Chirac boasted. "It brilliantly embodies the verve of our research and technology. The French people are rightly proud of the feats accomplished here - feats which speak for France. A modern France; an enterprising, successful France; a France which invests in its future."
The French bridge is also cheap, at least relatively, built in just three years for $520 million, with the money coming from private financiers and the Eiffage construction firm, which has the right to collect tolls for 75 years.
Meanwhile, back in California - which once was rightfully proud of its skill at building bridges and highways - the Bay Bridge reconstruction saga is sputtering toward public works infamy, right up there with Boston's notorious "Big Dig" tunnel.
In the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which damaged the bridge, it was determined that the eastern third of the span linking Oakland and San Francisco needed complete reconstruction or replacement because it rested on rotting wooden pilings and could collapse.
That conclusion touched off many years of political squabbling over the design and financing of the project. Finally, a deal was struck in the Legislature for a joint financing scheme, involving increased bridge tolls and state bond and gasoline tax funds, to refit or replace a number of Bay Area bridges. And finally, after an incredible amount of political and professional infighting in the Bay Area, it was agreed that the signature portion of the Bay Bridge project would be a daring form of suspension bridge that's been utilized successfully in other countries.
Preliminary construction finally began, but the delays, the unusual design and other factors drove up costs sharply. And when the state opened construction bids this year for the bridge's suspension section, just one was received, at twice the budgeted amount. The state rejected the bid, and the still-new Arnold Schwarzenegger administration launched a review of the project to determine whether a design change would save enough money to make it worthwhile.
Last week, just a few days before Chirac opened France's new engineering marvel, the administration abandoned the suspension design and opted for a simple viaduct on concrete pilings, dubbed a "skyway," which had been the original notion.
"We need to get a safe bridge completed as soon as possible for a reasonable cost," said Sunne McPeak, the administration's secretary of transportation and housing. "That is exactly the goal. The least risk is associated with the skyway."
Advocates of the bolder suspension design were disappointed, saying it undercuts the esthetics of the Bay Bridge. And even though it may save money, the bridge project is still running several billion dollars over the original estimate. At this moment, the state lacks the funds to pay for it.
The design shift rekindles the once-settled debate over financing, with Schwarzenegger pushing for even-higher bridge tolls and Bay Area politicians insisting that the state as a whole should pick up the cost - which would eat deeply into transportation accounts that are already bone-dry from years of raiding to shore up the deficit-ridden state budget.
So this is the situation: France built a world-class bridge in three years for a half-billion dollars while California continues for a second decade to haggle over a much-shorter span whose cost is already 10 times that of the French project and still growing.
We should hang our heads in shame.
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