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Debate Arises over New Bay Bridge Extension

A rendering of the proposed suspension bridge.
Image courtesy Donald MacDonald

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign to change the design of part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has sparked a controversy over one of the most expensive and technically challenging bridge projects in United States history.

The bridge was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A plan to rebuild the eastern span, a cantilever bridge that extends for almost two miles, calls for replacing it with a viaduct, known as the skyway, that connects with a self anchored suspension bridge, which has yet to be built.

Schwarzenegger and other legislators hope to prevent further delays and cost overruns by extending the viaduct instead of building the suspension bridge. The state could save $500 to $700 million by doing so, says Patrick Dorinson, Deputy Secretary for Communications at the California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency.

“The skyway is known technology, and we feel that it could be done faster and cheaper,” says Dorinson adding that in contrast the suspension bridge has too many unknowns. Further, the unencumbered views from skyway will be spectacular, says Dorinson. “The vistas of the Bay Area are going to be beautiful.”


But the architect for the Bay Bridge, Donald MacDonald, says, the suspension bridge design would be much more pleasing aesthetically than that of the skyway extension, which he says would have the visual impact of a “highway on stilts.” The self- anchored suspension design, he notes, would provide Oakland with a signature bridge, which could play a role similar to that of the Golden Gate Bridge in neighboring San Francisco, says MacDonald, adding, “you would go under the cable system and it would be your gateway to the East Bay—it would frame the East Bay hills and give Oakland a bridge that they can use as a symbol.”

MacDonald also contends that the self-anchored suspension bridge’s design is technologically the best suited for the especially challenging marine environment and soil conditions in the East Bay. Its main tower could be placed on a rock ledge in the bay, whereas the viaduct would require imbedding piers over 300 feet below the water line- the deepest ever constructed in the San Francisco Bay.

MacDonald also contends the proposed changes will actually delay the project further. “The public does not realize how extensive the changes are,” he says, adding, “It is not just a matter of putting a viaduct into the same space.”

Alex Ulam