Stop dawdling on bridge median

If there truly is no way on the books to fast-track the 12-to-18 months of required paperwork for the long-demanded Golden Gate Bridge movable median barrier, then there ought to be. When proven public safety endangerment exists — such as nearly half of the bridge’s 36 vehicle deaths since 1970 being directly due to head-on collisions — common sense seems to indicate that a streamlined process should be available for moving along the engineering and environmental reviews with some semblance of urgency.

Luckily nobody got killed in Wednesday’s nine-car pileup across the yellow plastic cones marking the bridge’s center divide. There were merely three major injuries — now all stabilized — and seven

moderate/minor injuries. The California Highway Patrol said bridge surveillance video shows the chain reaction was set off when a Petaluma man’s northbound Toyota pickup apparently made an unsafe right-lane change that bounced a college student’s Volvo head-on into southbound traffic, where the resulting multiple crashes shut down the Golden Gate Bridge for nearly 90 minutes.

The history of delays in placing an actual barrier to separate opposing traffic in the bridge’s center “suicide lanes” resembles a bureaucratic nightmare. A safety barrier was sought since the landmark span opened in 1937, with public outcries rising to a crescendo after particularly bad carnage in the 1970s and 1980s.

Major technical obstacles in building the divider have always been that it must be movable to accommodate morning and evening commute-traffic lane shift; plus it had to be unusually narrow because of bridge lane width. Cost factors and previous design limitations also caused delays.

However, a viable design for a foot-wide, steel-encased divider that can be moved across lanes by a “zipper truck” driving over it has been tested and approved since 1998. Finally, in February, the federal government came through with most of the $25 million needed for the device.

So what could still be dragging out the project for two more years? According to officials from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, because the iconic structure is in the National Register of Historic Places, it has strict design guidelines to preserve the original aesthetics. This makes environmental oversight rules especially painstaking

Of course, no true Bay Area aficionado wants anything permitted to disfigure the treasured Golden Gate Bridge. But still, does it make any sense that the mandated preliminary paperwork for a much-needed safety project will cost $5 million and take possibly twice as long for bureaucratic approvals as it will take to physically build and install the barrier?

A movable median divider is a not a permanent add-on to the bridge. It could be reworked or even removed if problems arise. Public pressure must ensure that the barrier reports move to the top of every approval pile on a bureaucrat’s desk.

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