A Tale of Two Bridges

A Tale of Two Bridges

by / May 31, 2007

On March 15, news outlets here in Sacramento, Calif., interrupted the opening round of the NCAA tournament to report "breaking" news. Now unless it's an announcement that the government finally admitted the existence of UFOs, there's not much news that should interrupt March Madness. Sure enough, it was another fire -- big deal.

The fire turned out to be a big deal after all -- at least to some people. The admittedly spectacular blaze consumed a 1,400-foot railroad trestle, which happened to be part of Union Pacific's (UP) main shipping line connecting the Port of Oakland with the rest of the country. With the bridge destroyed, trains going in and out of Northern California were being rerouted while arrival and departure schedules descended into chaos. 

On April 3, the entire toasted trestle had been replaced by a shiny, new concrete and steel railroad bridge. That's correct: UP demolished the damaged bridge, prepped the site, constructed a new bridge and opened it in three weeks. 

After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave UP the authority to begin construction without obtaining permits, the company deployed a 135-person team that worked day and night rebuilding the structure, a task that included driving 300 30-foot steel piles into the ground. Total cost? $30 million. 

Now, down Interstate 80, another bridge building project is under way -- the replacement of the eastern half of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. When it was initially proposed, back in 1997, this CalTrans project -- intended to retrofit the span for earthquakes -- involved nothing more than adding supplemental structural support. The cost was estimated at a few hundred million dollars. So far, so good. 

But in 1999, analysts claimed it would be better if the state built an entirely new span. The cost of a new span was an estimated $1 billion, but the structure would have triple the lifespan than the existing retrofitted bridge. 

Just one contractor responded to the state's RFP in 2003, however, and the cost ballooned from $1 billion to $6 billion. Also, the estimated completion date stretched from 2007 to 2012. Additionally to help pay for the project, the toll to cross any bridge in the Bay Area was increased by $2 for each automobile, making the current toll $4. 

What can we take from this tale of two bridges? That bureaucracy is expensive and crippling? That's no surprise. And granted the projects are vastly different in terms of size and scope, so perhaps there's only perspective to be gained. UP, driven by profit, seized the day and pulled off an impressive feat. Government, meanwhile, still seems resigned to cross the bridge when it gets there.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.