Bay Bridge Shows California’s Political Disarray

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If California can’t even build a major public safety project on time and on budget when virtually everyone – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – agrees it absolutely has to be done, what does it say about getting anything accomplished in the state these days?

That’s the question Steve Heminger, executive director of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, asked Thursday after his oversight committee set the Tuesday after Labor Day for the opening of the new, seismically enhanced eastern section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

That’s nearly 24 years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake made it clear to anyone watching pictures of the bridge’s upper deck crack open that the existing structure was a disaster waiting to happen.

Opening day is also some nine years after the original 2004 date set for completion of the new span and the $6.4 billion price tag is $5 billion higher than the early estimate.

Heminger admitted he was frustrated by the seemingly endless delays in getting the bridge built, delays he blamed on political disputes, continual and often heated debates over minor issues he dismissed as “sideshows” to the construction effort and, above all, California’s overweening respect for “process,” which all too often means that there are no final decisions, only more opportunities for discussion and dialogue that can delay or torpedo a project.

“We need to protect the values of public input and environmental concern, but we have to move faster,” he said. “Once we make a decision, don’t keep revisiting it.”

That wouldn’t be the California way, where talk is too often substituted for action and opponents of a measure don’t see any reason to take “yes” for an answer.

For Heminger, the battle over the proposed high-speed rail system is déjà vu all over again for anyone who watched the Bay Bridge struggle. The state – and its voters – approved the rail project and an appointed board has been trying to get the construction effort started. But they’ve been harried every step of the way by folks who don’t like the project and who are really upset that voters backed the $9.95 billion bond measure in 2008 and that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to get the trains running.

Now in the traditional world of politics, you get one bite of the apple, win or lose. But high-speed rail opponents keep arguing for a mulligan, saying in effect that voters didn’t really mean it when nearly 53 percent of them supported the bonds.

Every group with a concern that the train might somehow impact their lives has come up with a law suit or petition to either block the system or, failing that, move it to someone else’s backyard.

The “Stop HSR” efforts don’t get much more ridiculous than this week’s hubbub over billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s plan for a “hyperloop” system that he insists will move people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes, be built for one-tenth of the price tag for high-speed rail and cost only $20 for a one-way ticket.

Never mind that the so-called hyperloop technology is currently only slightly more viable than a Star Trek transporter beam – and has been tested about as much. Or that the financial figures seem, shall we say, optimistic. Or even that Musk, like many futurists, tends to dismiss technical obstacles to his big picture vision as mere engineering concerns. That didn’t stop high-speed rail opponents from hailing Musk’s musings as the wave of the future and calling, yet again, for an end to the rail plan, this time to clear the way for hyperloop.

Never mind that the rail system is about ready to lay its first section of track in the Central Valley or that the vaunted hyperloop technology exists only on paper – and largely on Musk’s paper. It’s still another chance to follow the spaghetti theory of political warfare: throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks.

It’s not just a California problem, as anyone who has watched the ongoing Obamacare fight in Washington knows. Rather than admitting they lost and looking to revise the planned healthcare system more to their liking – or make it better for their constituents – Republicans have decided to do the political equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly in an effort to tune out the reality of Obama’s legislative victory. It hasn’t worked.

One of the great things about politics and government has always been that there’s an end. When election day comes, people vote, a decision is made and everyone lives with it until the next election. When a bill gets to the floor, it gets an up or down decision and either becomes law or doesn’t.

But if there’s no such thing as a final decision, if an election or a floor vote is just the starting point for a renewed political combat, the system falls apart. Either nothing gets done or everything takes far longer and costs way more than it otherwise would have.

Kinda like the Bay Bridge.

“The story is ending well,” Heminger said Thursday after the vote to open the new bridge. “But the road to get here was far too long and far too winding.”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.