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Bay Area Commuters Angered Over Mismanagement Of Bridge Project


$6.4 billion - you know, for that kind of money you could buy the San Francisco 49ers five times over or build the new Bay Bridge. And that's way more than it was supposed to cost. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports that cost overruns and ongoing repairs are just part of the saga of one of the most expensive public works projects in California history.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: It was just two years ago when politicians and state bureaucrats counted down to the opening of the eastern span of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Four, three, two, one.


GONZALES: The project was nearly a quarter of a century in the making. The old bridge partially collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Politics and public planning delayed construction for 13 years. It took another 11 years to build the new bridge. But the excitement was tempered by the cost of the majestic single tower, self-anchored suspension bridge. It cost five times over its original estimate. Today out on the street, it's not hard to find people who say it's a beautiful bridge, but they wonder whether the public got what it paid for.

BRYCE WILLETT: No, no, we definitely did not get what we paid for. It was definitely not worth the money that they spent on it, absolutely not.

KENT RENO: That's just typical.

GONZALES: Typical of what?

RENO: Typical city work or government work.

GONZALES: You think we'll get what we paid for?

RENO: It's really hard to say, you know. Until we get another big earthquake, you really don't know.

GONZALES: You think we got our money's worth?


GONZALES: Some people say, well, it's a beautiful bridge.

WEST: Well, yeah. It's pretty but that's 'cause they're not paying for it.

GONZALES: That was Barbara West, a painter, Kent Reno, a construction worker and Bryce Willett, a book publisher. During construction, the bridge was dogged by reports of shoddy work, bad welds and poor-quality Chinese steel. More problems have surfaced since then, like cracked steel rods in the seismic safety system. And this week, there are concerns about the threat of corrosion to the main cable that supports the bridge. Just last month, the local regulatory agency overseeing construction voted to impose an $11 million penalty on the contractor for bad work and delays. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, says public frustration over the cost and quality of the bridge is justified. But ultimately, he says, the project was successful.

STEVE HEMINGER: Well, this project has always been a race against time. And in fact, we won that race. Despite all the odds and all the controversy, we were able to get a safe new bridge built before the old one collapsed in a major earthquake, and it was in serious risk of doing so.

GONZALES: But not everyone thinks that's the right metric for judging this bridge.

MARK DESAULNIER: This is one of the worst managed public works projects in the history of the state of California and probably the United States.

GONZALES: Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat, investigated the project last year when he was a state senator. His committee found a litany of problems, beginning with a lack of transparency by builders and state transportation officials and retaliation against whistleblowers. DeSaulnier says the Bay Bridge should be a lesson for other big public works projects like the Second Avenue Subway in New York City or plans for a high-speed rail in California.

DESAULNIER: The lack of accountability and the lack of interest in learning lessons from it is probably the biggest sins of the whole project.

GONZALES: Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown was asked about some defective steel bolts that threatened to delay the opening of the bridge. He seemed to dismiss the controversy. Brown said, look, stuff happens - only he didn't use the word stuff. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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