In about 20 years, if you’re in San Francisco and admiring a snazzy bridge crossing the bay – enjoy the view. It will be a good-looking structure.

Then again, think about safety. You probably wouldn’t since you’d assume people wouldn’t build an unsafe bridge.

But what if? Would an earthquake collapse it, or a terrorist bomb or simply the accumulated stress of a hundred million crossing a year?

If that makes you pause, then you might not be so anxious to pay the toll and make the crossing.

But business people have no choice. Hundreds of thousands of commuters don’t.

Bottom line, in a catastrophic event, your survival would depend on the choices made when the bridge was built. If you knew what really went on, you might not feel secure.

From the moment the decision was made to build a new bridge, there was an ego battle among politicians, there were government officials spending money they didn’t have based on projections of future income, fatal decisions to farm out material and construction to China to cut costs and Caltrans, the state transportation department running the operation, falling down on the job of safety oversight.

It’s enough to make a sane person pray for survival.

If you wonder why California is a fiscal disaster with no will to change course, the epic boondoggle of the new San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge Project is the current and most egregious example.

From the beginning, the epic journey of the new bridge was one of errors, mistakes, delays and enormous cost overruns over 22 years. The initial cost estimate was $1.4 billion. It’s skyrocketed to an estimated $6.3 billion, and the bridge isn’t scheduled to be completed till 2013.


But why a new bridge?

The original 4.5-mile structure is actually two separate bridges, of different designs, connecting through a tunnel on Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the bay.

Construction began in July 1933, and the bridge opened in November 1936 at a cost of $77 million, which included the Transbay Terminal facility.

The upper deck carried auto traffic, and the lower carried a rail system and trucks. Over the years, the trains were eliminated and car and truck traffic continued on both decks.

Then on Oct. 17, 1989, the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake hit.

One section of the upper deck of the structure connecting Yerba Buena with Oakland collapsed, killing one motorist.

Keep in mind, the bridge was designed to do just that: In a calamity, it would collapse in sections, so the whole bridge wouldn’t go down.

Given that just one section went down, it should have been good news of sorts.

But we’re talking San Francisco, where ego and skyline views trump practicality, safety and common sense and money is never an object, even when there isn’t any!

The bridge damage unleashed a torrent of proposals and arguments over the next 17 years about whether to retrofit or replace.

The western suspension span from San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island was intact so it was retrofitted and strengthened.

The eastern segment where the section collapsed was the problem. When it was finally decided to replace it, the battle lines formed over design, form, function, views and egos of the cities.

It was a political nightmare that ran through mayors and governors of both parties, to say nothing of the legislature.

The final design, while beautiful, raised concerns among some engineers that it was intrinsically unsafe.

It’s a unique design that’s only been constructed in a few worldwide locales, and all of them, much smaller than California’s version. In fact, California will be the largest span of that design ever built.

It’s a “self-anchored” suspension bridge, meaning there is a single tower that supports the roadways with cables fastened to the roadways themselves.

The safety concern raised is that if those cables are severed – in an earthquake, terrorist attack or major accident – the entire bridge would fall, because only the cables support the entire bridge.

Politicians loved the design and construction began. But the project has been rocked by politics, errors and delays. There were problems with substandard concrete, design flaws, bad Chinese steel specifications, cracks in support eye-bars and more.

The latest, and perhaps worst, because it can’t be rectified, was just exposed by reporter Charles Piller for the Sacramento Bee.

He found that Caltrans technician Duane Wiles failed to validate the accuracy of the gauge he used to do key testing to ensure the structural integrity of seven of the 13 pilings that are the foundation of the main tower of the eastern span of the new bridge.

It was also revealed Wiles fabricated at least three earlier test results on other projects statewide. It raises questions about all of his work statewide on bridges and freeway overpasses. He lied about safety and standards, and, in fact, he and other technicians threw out data files, which would show any detection of problems. He also bragged he could change data or make it up.

The Bee also revealed that Caltrans knew of the allegations against Wiles for years, including internal whistleblower accusations about safety.

The Bee examined 50,000 reports and test documents, showing Caltrans never had follow-up investigations.

What now?

Caltrans says it’s “confident” the bridge is safe, but it refuses to provide the Bee with documentation to validate that assertion.

When the Bee investigation was published, Wiles was fired, as was his supervisor Brian Liebich, chief of Caltrans’ Foundation Testing Branch.

The Legislature plans hearings about the testing “problems.”

So what? Those errors can’t be corrected. Starting over is out of the question, so after all the political huffing and puffing, construction will continue.

In the future, when the big earthquake hits, and if the bridge collapses, all the people involved in this scandal will be gone and no one will be “responsible.”

But – it’s a pretty bridge.

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