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Its safety is still in question, and parts remain unfinished, but the eastern span of the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco is slated to open on September 3, the day after Labor Day. The Bay Area Toll Authority approved $5.6 million for a celebration, but California taxpayers might want to take an inventory.
In reality, the new span was not necessary. The old double-deck bridge did suffer damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake but could have been retrofitted at reasonable cost. Politicians, however, wanted to spend money on a new bridge, a monument to themselves and a form of patronage because under prevailing wage legislation all the work goes to union contractors. But in this case not all the jobs were local or even national.
Government bosses bought the steel for the bridge from China, a one-party dictatorship where workers make $12 a day. Chinese steel reportedly saved $400 million, but that could not prevent costs overruns of $5 billion, bringing the total cost to nearly $7 billion. The project also comes in about a decade late, apparently close enough for government work. As the completion date loomed, problems emerged with bolts, welds, rods and such. California governor Jerry Brown famously responded, “s— happens.” More s— will doubtless happen on the other massive projects Brown wants, the so-called bullet train and delta tunnel projects. Those are also unnecessary but guaranteed to be as expensive and wasteful as possible.
As Lawrence McQuillan has pointed out, it doesn’t have to be this way. As in other states, contractors on government projects should be required to post a performance bond for the full amount before they start work. That would protect taxpayers against financial loss if the contractor fails to fulfill the terms of the contract, including price and time.
Meanwhile, legislators want to name the new Bay Bridge span after former San Francisco mayor and Assembly speaker Willie Brown. Columnist Dan Walters recalls that Brown “presided over a wheeler-dealer culture” and was once described as a “piece of living art.” So naming the eastern span for Brown is appropriate because “it, too, is now a piece of extravagant art.”