Abridged Version of a California Split

The Bay Area's most heavily used bridge undergirds a north-south debate

Apparently, not even a bridge can span the gap between northern and southern California.

For more than seven years, the Bay Bridge - the lesser-known but more heavily used cousin of the Golden Gate - has needed basic repairs. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook loose an entire section of the upper roadway in the bridge's western span, and although the bridge was patched up, the 60-year old landmark remains essentially untouched.

"We need to strengthen or replace the structure, hopefully before the next big earthquake," says state Sen. Bill Lockyer, whose district lies on the bridge's east end. "The clock is running."

Senator Lockyer is a key player in the drive to get money this year to put the bridge on sound seismic footing. But before that can happen, the plans for the bridge have to surmount a political divide as deep and as enduring as the civil war between California's north and south.

"The blue and the gray is always there," says state Sen. David Kelley, who hails from the San Diego area in southern California. "It doesn't make any difference what the issue is. We have all the population and they've got all the water. It'll never come to a conclusion."

Efforts to raise the money needed to repair the bridge have fallen short of their goal, and Bay Area legislators want more from state highway funds.

This has left legislators in the land of freeways a bit cold. "Those of us from southern California like myself, we need every dollar we can get," says Senator Kelley, vice chairman of the state Senate's Transportation Committee. "We get concerned when we see dollars diverted up there."

The bridges should be paid for by "the folks who would be reaping the benefit," pronounces Rep. Bill Morrow, a Republican state assemblyman from Oceanside in southern California.

This strikes Lockyer and his Bay Area colleagues as a bit parochial. "We helped you in your crisis," he says, recalling the funds spent to rebuild the Los Angeles area after the massive 1994 Northridge quake.

But the battle gets even more complicated over the matter of bridge design. Plans to simply update the existing bridge proved to be almost as costly as building a new, more cost-effective bridge. So Caltrans, the state transportation agency, unveiled two proposals to replace the western span. (The eastern span, a suspension bridge, survived the quake in better shape.) The cheapest is a concrete viaduct that Bay Area residents disdain as an import from their tasteless southern brethren.

Caltrans also offered a two-tower, cable-supported bridge, that would cost some $200 million more. Governor Pete Wilson (R) weighed in with his architectural choice - the viaduct. "It is my belief that if the residents of the Bay Area desire an aesthetically enhanced bridge," Gov. Wilson said, "the additional costs should be borne by the Bay Area."

Alan Temko, the Bay Area's arbiter of architectural taste, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his writings in the San Francisco Chronicle and whose articles are credited with forcing the redesign of another Bay Area bridge, rendered his own judgment.

The twin tower design "makes no sense except perhaps as a ploy in Gov. Pete Wilson's long-running political sitcom of sticking it to northern California," Mr. Temko wrote in the Chronicle.

Dismissing the viaduct for its "inability to lift up our hearts and minds," Temko instead promoted yet another design by renowned architect T.Y. Lin, who proposes a cable-stayed bridge.

A seven-person committee has been appointed to divine the public's mind and render its own recommendation. Lockyer and his backers agree that if the committee opts for the stylish choice, the northerners will have to pay the difference. Adds Mark De Saulnier, bridge committee member: "We intend to engage the public to find out what their threshold for beauty is."

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