As the radio and newspapers chronicle Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reversal of support for the California high-speed rail project, my dismay about his change of heart on a major and visionary infrastructure project is tempered by a book I am reading, “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge,” by Kevin Starr. The parallels between these two great infrastructure projects are striking.
The design of the Golden Gate Bridge evolved. Had it been built exactly as planned at the beginning, we would have had a bridge similar to the Bay Bridge. Not until that design was rejected did lead architect Joseph P. Strauss bring in a team of engineers, architects and even a movie theater designer to create what eventually evolved into the beautiful and gracious art deco towers and longest single-span suspension bridge, except for the Verrazano-Narrows, in the world.
Opposition was fierce and came from all sides. For the Golden Gate, everyone from Ansel Adams to Gertrude Atherton cried that the bridge would despoil the view. Money flowed to the opposition from the ferries that would lose their booming business carting cars back and forth across the strait. Ship owners also cited their fears that their masts would not clear the bridge. Even the Commonwealth Club of California passed a resolution, calling it an “inopportune time.”
Once the voters approved a bond, financing was neither clear nor easy to come by. Ferry companies and others launched lawsuits to stop the bonds from being issued. There were no companies willing to take on the issuance of the bond until Bank of America stepped up.
Cost estimates went up from conception to design to construction, to the consternation of politicians. The original cost estimate was $17 million. That amount almost doubled to $32 million, and the final cost ended up coming in at $35 million. Legal challenges were continuous. More than 2,000 suits were filed against the Golden Gate Bridge.
Another infrastructure project’s cost overruns affected the Golden Gate Bridge. Strauss and City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy issued the proposal to build the bridge in 1921, but O’Shaughnessy came out against construction of it in 1930, as his own project, building the Hetch Hetchy water system, was wildly over its budget.
And, finally, politicians wavered in their support.
And yet, with Strauss’ perseverance and San Francisco’s need to be connected to the north — as evidenced by the 15-mile backup of cars waiting for the ferry to Sausalito on Labor Day 1930 — the bridge was built. Last year, we celebrated its 75th birthday — the anniversary of an engineering wonder, one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world.
So here we are in 2014, an election year. The design for high-speed rail is still being drawn up. Opposition, which includes landowners and Republican-led politicians such as U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, is fierce. Cost estimates have doubled. Legal objections continue to come up and be parried. The Bay Bridge’s leaky, overbudget infrastructure makes people feel, as blogger Peter Dorison observes, “politicians would screw up a one-car funeral.’”
And I say to Newsom, my former mayor who is a visionary in so many other ways, stay the course.
High-speed rail is about the future of California. Will California be divided between the clean air, public-transit-rich, good-wage jobs of coastal California and the polluted, car-centric, and low-wage jobs of inland California? Or will we bridge the divide and spread the wealth more evenly? Is planning to slow climate change by reducing carbon emissions on the roads of California a must have or a nice to have?
The California voters decided and passed a bond to be spent on high-speed rail in 2008. That train has left the station, and that money can’t be spent on anything else. And we decide as well which politicians we want to vote for. There are the ones like Gov. Jerry Brown who steadfastly and unwaveringly support California high-speed rail and work to make the vision a reality. And there are those who look for an opening and think they found it in the wind currently blowing on this latest visionary infrastructure project.
It’s up to us to decide.