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California fool's gold, Part 2

Posted By Barbara Simpson On 04/29/2012 @ 2:53 pm In Commentary | No Comments

For a state that once was the epitome of innovation and expert construction – think the Golden Gate Bridge, the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge, the freeway system and more – California has slipped into the mire of bureaucracy, favoritism, political pressure and strong-armed union influence.

Given the mindset and the existing laws then, those infrastructure marvels built 50-60-70 years ago could not be built now – certainly not for the cost, in the time frame and of the same quality.

But that doesn’t stop the political dreamers and those who stand to make a bundle with new proposals. Keep in mind, the new Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and the high-speed rail proposal.

Key elements: politicians keen on power and ego and the continual gullibility of state voters to buy the political sales pitch to increase taxes, approve bond issue upon bond issue and additional fees and taxes on their property tax bills.

Californians are suckers for the utopian proposals of the pols, which, they believe, will make everything better and not really cost anyone anything.

This year, there’s a different slant on that. This year, as the state faces abysmal financial crises on every level, Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-controlled Legislature refuse to change direction.

Rather than submitting a balanced budget with appropriate spending cuts to accommodate the revenue decrease, they plunge on with the spending. Their solution is to raise taxes on the rich, raise sales taxes on everyone, and propose more bond issues with seemingly no interest that the state can’t even afford the interest on existing obligations.

California has a history of such budget busters. For example, it couldn’t even get together on the cost of replacing the 1927 Carquinez Bridge in the Bay Area. In 1995, the estimate was $294 million; by 2000, it was $433 million; by 2004 it was $528 million.

It’s just money.

Then on Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area. It was 6.9 on the Richter Scale, a 7.1 surface wave magnitude. As seismologists said, it wasn’t the Big One, but it was big.

Among the damage was the collapse of the East Bay approaches to the bridge and the collapse of a section of the upper deck onto the lower in the cantilever section of the structure.

It should be noted that the bridge was designed to do just that. In other words, it would collapse in sections depending on the extent of the shaking but the entire bridge would not collapse.

As soon as the extent of the damage was determined, there were arguments among politicians and engineers as to whether to repair it or replace it. When it was finally decided to replace it, there were design arguments and ego battles between the then-Mayor of Oakland Jerry Brown (yes, the same one who’s governor now) and the then-Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown.

The issue: Which design would make which city look the best?!

They decided on a unique design, a self-anchored suspension, never built anywhere in the world in a structure of this size, which would carry the kind of daily traffic the bridge handles.

There were, and are, concerns about the ultimate safety of the design if the Big One hits – but that didn’t matter.

That was 22 years ago. First cost estimate was $1.3 billion, then in 2004, $5.1 billion.

Now, we’re told it will be more than $7 billion, and it’ll be done in 2013.

We’ll see.

But there are concerns: The steel in the structure and almost all of the bridge components were built in China. There were problems with steel quality, with substandard welds, with questions about concrete quality, a push by the state to use recycled materials in concrete design and the revelation of falsified inspecting reports.

On top of that, due to the design, if any part of the bridge breaks, the whole thing goes down.

Yet it continues, so does the cash register. When it’s done, more than 270,000 vehicles daily will cross the span.

I don’t think I’m the only one who won’t feel safe.

Then there’s Jerry Brown’s vision of a high-speed rail system running down the middle of California. It’s been 16 years in the making. It was proposed to voters as a way to get us out of our cars and out of planes and take the train to Los Angeles.

It would create jobs, it would stimulate the economy and it would be green!

What could be wrong? In 2008, voters barely approved $9 billion in bonds for the project, which, they were told, would cost $45 billion and run from Sacramento to San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego.

Then reality hit.

Last year, a revision said it would cost $100 billion, open in 2034 and eliminate San Diego and Sacramento.

That didn’t go over, either, so the Rail Authority Board did a re-work and came up with a $68 billion cost, with service starting in 2029. But fares were higher, ridership was cut, as was service and the route.

Voters are resisting. Newspaper editorials are too, but the Democrats in the Legislature and Brown refuse to budge and $3 billion in bond money must be approved to get it started.

Did I mention: California can’t even pay for its regular obligations?

There’s a move for people to vote again on the issue, but the governor also has Californians voting on massive tax increases in November.

Somebody’s smokin’ something in Sacramento.

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