EDITORIAL: Bay Bridge debacle offers lessons for the bullet train

State cannot afford same delays, overruns and miscues on project.

September 4, 2013 

Years late, billions over budget, riddled with construction errors -- but also stunning, iconic, beautiful -- the new eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened to regular traffic Monday night. Due to uncertainty about when the bridge would open, Monday's ceremonial opening was not the extravaganza originally planned. That was a good thing.

There's no doubt the bridge is a visual marvel. A self-anchored suspension bridge -- 2,047 feet long, its steel cables forming a distinctive triangular pattern as they cascade down from a 525-foot tower -- it is the largest such structure in the world. The suspension bridge attaches to the skyway portion of the span, two side-by-side bridges that gracefully curve toward Yerba Buena Island from Oakland.

The new bridge replaces the old double-decker structure built in the 1930s and irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new bridge is much safer and less vulnerable to earthquakes.

But, as the state embarks on high-speed rail, the bridge also offers lessons on how not to manage big public works projects.

The bridge's more than $4 billion in cost overruns and long delays can be blamed in part on politicians squabbling over design. Gov. Pete Wilson initially wanted a bare-bones structure. His derisively dubbed "highway on stilts," however, was rejected by local politicians who fought for something more grandiose.

In the last few years, as the bridge has been under construction, mismanagement at the California Department of Transportation has become the focus of attention. The Sacramento Bee's Charles Piller broke stories about faulty inspections. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on bolts that failed on a key seismic safety device.

Brian Kelly, secretary of the state's new Transportation Agency, says the state has learned a lot about how to manage big projects from its Bay Bridge experience. Vigorous and constant independent oversight is essential. So is transparency -- letting the public know early and often what the expectations and the challenges are.

The state cannot afford the same delays, cost overruns and construction mistakes on its bullet train that marred the Bay Bridge project. High-speed rail will be a key test for the state's newly organized Transportation Agency. Is it up to it?

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