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Why “s— happens” with government

Wednesday May 22nd, 2013   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 9:16am PDT   •  

s_happens“Look, s— happens.”

That was California governor Jerry Brown, a former candidate for President of the United States, responding to reports of faulty bolts and rods on the new span of the Bay Bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco. The governor didn’t get into why, exactly, all that happened, but it’s worth a look.

In 1989 the powerful Loma Prieta earthquake wrecked the original double-deck span, but less than two months later the bridge reopened. Caltrans, the massive state government agency, wanted to retrofit the span at a cost of $230 million, which even then shaped up as a decent deal. But then Caltrans bosses saw an opportunity to make more work for themselves and proposed a spanking new span for $1 billion. As Mary Theroux noted, the tab is now $6.4 billion “with no end in sight.” All that runaway spending, however, has not prevented safety concerns such as bolts and rods that could well break during an earthquake. How could all that happen?

As the Sacramento Bee noted, members of a review panel created by the state’s Legislative Analyst had “financial and professional ties to the California Department of Transportation and Bay Bridge contractors.” And that panel was formed after a Bee investigation revealed conflicts of interest in a Caltrans review panel that pronounced the bridge’s foundations to be sound. State senator Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, told the Bee “There’s no sense in paying 100 grand to have someone summarily approve everything Caltrans has done. We need an independent review.” He is right, but there’s more to the story.

Jerry Brown, raised in San Francisco and a former mayor of Oakland, doubtless sees the new bridge as part of his legacy. It’s actually a monument to the way government operates. A retrofit the original span would have been more prudent course but government usually prefers the more expensive and complicated course. Waste is inherent in the system and when safety concerns surface, politicians shrug and say “look, s— happens.”

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May 2013