Leave it to the French to make the Americans look bad.
It was unfortunate for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that his decision to replace the Bay Bridge's signature span with a skyway that critics call a "freeway on stilts" was promptly followed by the French opening a spectacular bridge over the Tarn Valley.
A butterfly-like structure, we might add, that President Jacques Chirac declared an "audacious'' work of art and symbol of "a modern and conquering France.''
With that in mind, we called the person who made the Bay Bridge call -- state Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak -- to ask how France winds up with a $550 million gem and we get a $5 billion dud.
What follows are highlights of the conversation:
McPeak: First off, there is a world of difference between that French bridge and the Bay Bridge.
It's not nearly as long. In fact, it's half as long.
It's over a small river, not a bay.
It's only got four lanes instead of 10.
And theirs is not in the same kind of seismic activity area as the bay --
which makes a world of difference.
Plus, the toll on that French bridge is about $7 for cars and $32 or so for trucks.
M&R: So what do you say to critics who call the new Bay Bridge span ugly?
McPeak: It's all in the eye of the beholder. The skyway approach we are going to have is very open and clean, and for me personally what is special about the area is the bay. The design continues to open up the beautiful vistas of the bay.
M&R: OK, but what about all the delays that changing the design in midstream will cause?
McPeak: The review panel said and underscored that the suspension bridge was so complicated and unique, and has never been done before, that we have to expect, no matter what you think the cost or time is today, there will be delays and therefore cost increases. That was persuasive.
M&R: And the new flat one?
McPeak: We estimated very conservatively ... that it could take as long as 30 months to do the complete redesign and new permitting. It would still be completed in same time frame as the most optimistic estimate for the self- anchored suspension. And that's exactly what stood out for me.
M&R: But your own reports said the suspension bridge was the safest bet.
McPeak: Seismic safety has to be one of the most important considerations, and we totally agree. The only variable is how quickly we can go with it. ... We can get that sucker built by 2011 or 2012, which is the most optimistic scenario for the (suspension span).
M&R: What costs do we have to eat by changing?
McPeak: Thirty million dollars, for the foundation that has already been built.
M&R: All right, now about the debate over who should pay. Why doesn't the state pay for the bridge? After all, it's now their design.
McPeak: That's a false debate to say, "Is the state paying or is the Bay Area paying?" When legislators call for state to pay for it, it's not out of the general fund -- it would be out of transportation dollars, further impacting other Bay Area projects.
M&R: So, in other words, if the "state" picked up the tab, we'd lose money for BART or AC Transit or road projects?
McPeak: That's just a matter of math, not making any threats.
M&R: What do you think of state Sen. Don Perata's idea of a statewide bond to pay for it?
McPeak: We already have considerable debt, and bonding for a specific facility is a low priority given all the infrastructure needs of California.
M&R: We've got a $3 toll now. Bottom line, what's the toll hike going to be -- $4 or $5?
McPeak: We're looking at variable pricing. It could be $3 off-peak and $5 peak. The Golden Gate Bridge, as you know, is at $5.
M&R: Sunne, you live here in the Bay Area -- any fears you may have burned your own political bridges with this decision?
McPeak: Well, I've sure had lots of people disagree with our position. I have had lots more agree. I am not running a popularity contest -- I'm running the infrastructure (program) of the state . . . and I have to get the job done.
We have made as honest a call as we could.
No dice: The idea of the little-known Lower Lake Rancheria-Koi Nation opening a 2,000-slot-machine casino out by Oakland International Airport appears to be crashing on takeoff.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted "no dice" last week.
The mayors of neighboring Alameda and San Leandro have let it be known they oppose it as well.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown -- who wants the casino's revenue -- is dickering back and forth.
And now Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan is putting up a resolution opposing the casino as well.
Anyway you look at it -- not a great hand.
Price of fame: "I never would have thought that 12 seconds on TV could cause such a commotion in my life,'' said emergency room doctor Mark Bell, who stars in a commercial praising Schwarzenegger for relaxing nursing staffing levels at hospitals.
The 30-second commercial, which was put together by the California Healthcare (read hospital) Association, has been airing in major markets up and down state as a thank you for the governor's actions.
At the same time, the California Nurses Association has been screaming foul over Schwarzenegger's decision to freeze mandated nurse-to-patient ratios at 6 to 1 rather than at 5 to 1.
Bell -- who thanks the governor in the commercial for easing the "rigid" regulations that "threatened our ability to give access and care to those in need'' -- says he's since been castigated by some of the nurses he works with at the Tarzana Regional Medical Center.
But the real blow came when a hospital worker came up to him in the middle of his shift and asked if he still supported the nurses.
When Bell said "yes," the worker, a nurse, pulled out a petition and asked him to sign it. He did.
"I was busy seeing patients and had my mind on other things," Bell said, so he didn't read it carefully.
It turned out to be a petition blasting the governor's decision.
And quick as you could say "a star is born," the nurses sent it out as a press release slamming the governor.
"All in all, it's been somewhat of a whirlwind," Bell said. "Right now, I'd just be happy to get back and take care of my patients.'
BART fares: As we reported a little while ago, BART's four top managers all got 5 percent pay increases for next year -- just a bit less than the 6 percent hike that the BART rank and file got in July.
We have since learned that the managers also each got a $5,400 year-end bonus as well.
Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. They can also be heard on KGO Radio on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Phil Matier can be seen regularly on KRON 4 News, and also on Sunday night at 9:30 on his own show, "4 the Record." Got a tip? Call them at (415) 777-8815 or drop them an e-mail at [email protected].