Part of the Bay Area News Group


By enelson
Thursday, August 30th, 2007 at 11:59 pm in BART, Bay Bridge, Bridges, Caltrans, connectivity, driving, Freeway collapse, Freeways, Retrofitting.

never-get-to-work-sign.jpg I hate making commitments. Never mind that I’ve been married for 19 years and four months, I just don’t like to say yes to something and then find out that something else is more pressing and disappoint someone.

Still, I found myself exiting the Montgomery St. BART/Muni station this afternoon, doing the “talk to the hand” gesture to someone who was trying to hand me a leaflet of some sort. I felt slightly guilty, having once handed out leaflets myself back when I was a starving student.

I had committed to sit on a panel discussing transportation in California. That I would be invited to share my opinion about something I know very little about was sure to be an ego boost, so I jumped at the chance. Accepting the $175 stipend (to cover one’s expenses… BART fare, $5, parking, $6, lost speaking engagement fees, $164… hmm… that works out perfectly) was regrettably out of the question, however, as Caltrans was footing the bill.

Of course, by the time today rolled around, I had a story to write about the Bay Bridge.

Psst. It’s closing this weekend, if you haven’t seen the light-up signs, heard the ads or found one of Caltrans’ fliers under your windshield wiper.

So I show up at 44 Montgomery Street and find out that I’m one of a dozen people in a focus group on Caltrans, its future, its image and its relationship to public transportation. I’m told I can’t attribute anything without getting permission after the two-hour session, so I won’t bother here.

Even though it used up valuable time as Channel 2 was stomping around Treasure Island reporting on jacks that failed to lift one end of the new Yerba Buena Island Viaduct, I really learned a lot from the group.

First a consensus, more or less, was reached that Caltrans Director Will Kempton was doing a bang-up job, in spite of the fact that the organization’s culture doesn’t reward taking risks in order to solve problems for the public.

Like me, Caltrans has had trouble committing.

They mentioned rebuilding the MacArthur Maze in a few weeks showing what the organization was capable of, once unshackled of its bureaucratic prerogatives.

I haven’t been around these parts for long, but I have gathered that Caltrans is not held in the highest of regard by Californians.

What I didn’t realize, however, was how much a roomful of Bay Area transportation professionals had to unload on the department.

The room was practically seething. Caltrans is unresponsive, uncaring, overly worried about legal liability and operating in an environment where sitting on your thumbs seems the most effective way to get ahead.

Kempton would need about 10 years in office – highly unlikely for any political appointee – in order to have a prayer of whipping the outfit into shape. One person even suggested ironclad decade-long appointments.

I thought it curious to hear all this on a day when I was going to preview a weekend when Caltrans planned to pull off perhaps its greatest trick yet: Condensing a sizeable segment of reconstructing the Bay Bridge’s eastern span into three days.

After the Bay Area had become utterly disenchanted with an earthquake retrofit project that is now threatening to last a quarter-century, Caltrans was going to show how it could be done quickly and relatively painlessly.

As I hurried downstairs and back to BART, I was accosted once again by a leaflet-hawker. I instinctively recoiled, but as I passed by, caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye.

“Don’t you want to know about the Bay Bridge closing?” the pamphleteer asked.

“Now that you mention it, I certainly do,” I said as I spun on my heel and grabbed the full-color brochure. “Thanks.”

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