California, the state of “fruits and nuts” is about to prove it again with a great big party with a great big price tag for a great big new bridge that has its own enormous price tag!

Labor Day weekend is set for the four-day, grand opening of the new eastern span of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge.

Officials from the Bay Area Toll Authority voted for a big party to give people the opportunity to walk and cycle the new span before it opens to traffic.

The idea of a bridge-crossing party isn’t the issue; the cost of the bridge-walk is.

Estimates are the entire weekend party will cost some $12 million. Some events – fireworks, marathons – will be financed with privately donated funds, but the costs of the walk across the new span will be paid from toll receipts.

In other words, automobile drivers who regularly pay from $4 to $6 per crossing and commercial and multi-axle vehicles, which pay much more, will foot the bill.

How much? Hold your breath.

$5.6 million!

That’s a lot of toll crossings, especially since that money is supposedly dedicated to maintenance and seismic upgrades to the entire bridge, the new span and the original Western span as well as the other bay bridges.

The announcement of the plan was met with mixed public response. But many Californians, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor are almost unanimous in saying the idea is insane. It’s too much money from the wrong source, especially when the state is on the verge of fiscal catastrophe.

But who cares what they say? The state will decide, so after the announcement, the Toll Authority met again and voted, “Party on!”

Spokesman Randy Rentschler said, “A public celebration of the new Bay Bridge is absolutely the right thing to do.”

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier told the Contra Costa Times that while private money would be preferable, “This is the public’s bridge, and they deserve this once in a century opportunity to walk on their bridge. If it takes some public dollars to make it a safe event, then so be it.”

It’s estimated that 200,000 people will be there, but that’s probably a low figure even though tickets will be issued.

When the Golden Gate Bridge had a 50thth anniversary, it’s reported 50,000 were expected to walk the bridge; 800,000 showed up, more than 300,000 on the bridge. The weight was so heavy, the bridge deck actually flattened.

So where is all that money going?

  • $510,000 for registration and ticketing to spread out the number of people on the bridge at any one time.
  • $1.86 million for buses, depots and staff. That’s only to get people to the bridge. They’ll have to get home from San Francisco on their own.       $955,000 to access control and security.
  • $865,000 for portable toilets and recycling. Hey, it is the Bay Area!
  • $165,000 for volunteer recruitment, meals and transportation.
  • $121,000 for first aid stations and medical staff.
  • $160,000 for miscellaneous expenses.
  • $926,000 contingency for unexpected costs.

What’s really irksome is that this enormous cost for the “party” comes on top of the total cost of the bridge itself.

That goes back 24 years to the 1989 “almost big one” earthquake – known locally as the World Series Quake, officially, the Loma Prieta Quake.

There was damage to freeway ramps leading to the Bay Bridge and several sections of the bridge gave way – as they were designed to do when under great stress – but the rest of the structure remained.

It was determined seismic retrofit wasn’t sufficient, so the decision was made to build an entire new bridge on the east side of Treasure Island. The western span was retrofitted.

The ensuing battle over bridge design was epic. Some wanted a reasonably priced, functional causeway. Then, dueling mayors got involved – San Francisco’s Willie Brown and Oakland’s Jerry Brown, each wanting a unique design to make a statement about their city.

What they got is the world’s longest, self-anchored suspension bridge, a project plagued by controversies over Chinese steel, concrete deficiencies, inspection problems, mismanagement, long delays and mind-boggling cost overruns.

While thousands of people drove over the old span for those 24 years – and still do, myself included – the cost of the new span skyrocketed from $1 billion to more than $6 billion!

And now, at a time when California’s economy is dismal and prospects for improvement are slim, people face huge tax increases that the current governor, the same Jerry Brown, has maneuvered into place, unemployment is high, people and businesses are leaving the state because of those taxes and bureaucracy, when California leads the nation in gas prices (as I write, well over $5 a gallon) and those bridge tolls have zoomed from .50 to $6 and will likely go higher – now the state says it’s OK to soak the public with a nearly $6 million tab to indulge political egos.

Ah, California. The “Golden State.” Beautiful climate and terrain are certainly good aspects of the place, but they don’t pay the bills or fill the stomach.

Some things never change, though you wonder why people put up with it.

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