It’s a familiar sort of news item these days: A huge and vastly expensive bridge being proposed in California will forever alter one of the Golden State’s most spectacular marine panoramas. It will be the largest of its type ever built, stretching more than a mile and a half between landfalls, towering nearly 700 feet above the water, and carrying six lanes of traffic into a once-isolated area containing some of the state’s most unspoiled stretches of coastline.
Here come years of political acrimony, debate over cost and viability, interference by special interests, uproar over environmental impact, and all the rest, right?
Wrong. You won’t hear any, because the bridge in question was completed across San Francisco’s incomparable Golden Gate 75 years ago, in an era when ambitious engineering projects were met with unity of purpose rather than fractious bickering. This may explain why the Golden Gate Bridge could be built in the incredibly short span of 51 months, and at a final cost that was $1.3 million below budget.
Granted, the bridge’s road to completion wasn’t a smooth one. The idea of bridging the Golden Gate had long been pondered, but only in 1916 was any real action taken toward this goal. In the interim came the Great Depression and a series of financial setbacks to the project. Still, construction on one of the most inhospitable sites in history began on Jan. 5, 1933. Four years and four months later, on May 28, 1937, the bridge was opened to traffic. Total cost: $35 million (about $1.2 billion in current dollars).
Contrast these statistics with those of another project now under way just a few miles inland from the Golden Gate, on a shallow mud flat site that’s far less challenging. It’s a new bridge intended to replace the cantilever portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a portion of which collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Since the bridge carries some 270,000 vehicles per day, the prospect of another collapse forced a decision to replace it with a safer span before an even bigger quake came along.
A fairly urgent undertaking, no? Yet instead there ensued more than a decade of political wrangling over economic, aesthetic, engineering and environmental issues. Construction finally began a dozen years later, in 2002, attended by the first of many subsequent sticker shocks: The lone construction bidder came in at $1.4 billion — almost twice the state’s projected cost of $780 million.
Today, more than 22 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the intended replacement bridge is still under construction. The latest schedule calls for completion "on or just after Labor Day 2013," at an estimated total construction cost of $6.3 billion — more than eight times the original estimate.
On the one hand, then, we have a truly daunting engineering challenge, undertaken in difficult economic times on a site that many declared unbuildable, that was nevertheless completed in record time and under budget; on the other, we have an urgent and relatively straightforward project that’s been mired in red tape and controversy for almost a quarter century.
One has to lament the disparate outcomes in this tale of two bridges, and what they say about America today.
Happy 75th birthday, Golden Gate Bridge — it’s a shame we can’t seem to build ’em like you anymore.