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giving in to gephyrophobia

By enelson
Friday, August 3rd, 2007 at 7:28 pm in Bay Bridge, Bridges, Safety, Smart Lanes, tolls.

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I must confess that I’m one of those people who is both fascinated and frightened by bridges.

Maybe it’s my acrophobia, although in my defense I must say it’s not exactly against human nature to fear falling from a high place, prehistoric cliff dwellers notwithstanding.

Then again, there’s the fact that I’m a relative newbie to the Bay Area, so I don’t think about all those years of living here without a major earthquake. When I cross the Bay Bridge, I think about the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the 50-foot bridge deck that came loose and the upper deck of the Cypress Structure that crushed 42 people in cars.

To quote the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Randy Rentschler, again, “we won’t know until it happens.”

Up in Minneapolis, they didn’t even have a quake and we don’t yet know why the thing went down. We just know that the steel bridge over the Mississippi had been neglected, even after it received a scary evaluation.

So some of us _ enough to justify today’s story on the subject _ think about bridges collapsing from underneath our cars, especially when traffic stops and our odds of being stuck out there when the big one hits seem to increase.

I must say that being a journalist, I’m in the unique position of both allaying and stoking these fears when I do stories about such things. In our old Oakland headquarters, I used to be startled by tiny temblors until a seismic engineer told me that the Trib Tower’s steel-and-masonry construction made it surprisingly capable of withstanding a good shaking. On the other hand, our new building, built in the more recent era of steel and glass, might have some unresolved issues. So here I sit, trying to focus on bridges instead of office buildings.

The 35W bridge collapse brought me back to last summer, when a motley gathering of transportation officials, writers and downright transportation nerds (guilty!) met at San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. From there they sought to re-create the difficult 1919 cross-country Army convoy trip that helped inspire a young Dwight Eisenhower that the nation needed a decent highway system. The common thread that ran through the speeches and side conversations I had with people is that the Interstate system, now 51 years old, had fallen on hard times.

There isn’t enough money for basic maintenance, let alone building new capacity. There’s a commission that meets in Washington periodically to come up with a solution to that problem, which will probably consist of either a new tax or widespread tolls and freeway privatization. But that’s a bridge we’ve yet to cross.

Until somebody figures this out and our elected representatives summon the courage to enact a remedy, we’ll just have to keep crossing our old bridges.

Yesterday, I was on the phone with bridge expert Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl. Normally, he’s the guy who’ll tell you that Caltrans is playing fast and loose with earthquake and bridge safety, and my friends at Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission can list all sorts of reasons why he might want to do that.

But this time he was, in one sense, singing Caltrans’ praises. The one major bridge that might have given way to the scourge of fatigue-cracked welds _ as he suspects might have been wrong with the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis _ was caught back in the 1980s by sharp-eyed Caltrans inspectors and fixed. And the Bay Bridge East Span, which gives both me and my wife the willies sometimes, is a fine old lady, solidly riveted and retrofitted.

In fact, he thought the bridge didn’t even need to be replaced. He had a lot more to say about the new bridge, but we don’t have to worry about sitting on that structure for six years or so, and I had deadlines to meet and much older bridges to cross.

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