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May 10, 2013
Guest Opinion: Stuff happens - and sometimes we let it happen


(May 10 -- By Ben Boychuk, Special to The Bee)

Great leaders do and say great things. The difference between greatness and mediocrity can become evident at odd and critical moments.

Think about the past century or so. Examples are easy to conjure. Abraham Lincoln in 1865: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." Franklin Roosevelt in 1932: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Winston Churchill in 1940: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Ronald Reagan in 1987: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Jerry Brown this week: "S--- happens."

Hmmm. A bit of dissonance there, admittedly. But in these troubled times, to paraphrase another great man, we make do with the statesmen we have, not the statesmen we might wish to have.

Some context: An inquisitive reporter on Tuesday had just asked the governor about the troubled Bay Bridge construction project. In March, 32 of 96 seismic stabilizing bolts failed a stress test simulating the type of earthquake that happens now and then in the Golden State. And late last month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the state Department of Transportation had ordered some 1,200 steel fasteners made of the same material as the faulty seismic bolts. Those would need to be tested, too. Then a retired metallurgist published a report denouncing Caltrans engineers' alleged ignorance of "hydrogen embrittlement," which happens after steel is exposed to hydrogen (the main component of water) for too long.

With all of that bad news, was the governor concerned about a setback in the bridge's scheduled Labor Day grand opening?

"Don't know if it's a setback," Brown replied. "I mean, look, s--- happens. There are very professional engineers that are looking at this thing, and when they're ready to give us their report, I think the public will be satisfied."

The governor went on to say it would be "premature to pull our hair out" over this news. Sure, that's easy for him to say!

What do people expect? After all, Brown isn't in the literal bridge-building business. He's a man deeply engaged with the Theologico-Political Problem who also happens to be governor of the eighth ... whoops ... the ninth ... no, hold on a second ... the 12th-largest economy on the planet. (Look, dips happen.)

Still, this ... stuff is getting expensive. A few broken fasteners here, a cracked seismic bolt there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. So far, the Bay Bridge project has cost more than $6.4 billion, not including interest on all of the bonds the state floated to finance construction. And this job has taken forever.

You might remember the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was a freshman in college. Millions of people watched the quake happen on live TV, as the third game of the World Series was about to start. The quake, which registered 6.9 on the Richter scale, caused widespread damage and collapsed part of the double-decker Bay Bridge, killing one driver.

Fixes happened. The bridge reopened about six weeks later, but Caltrans understood the bridge needed to be upgraded. Transportation planners' estimated cost for retrofitting the bridge in 1994: a modest $230 million. Those were the days.

But the retrofit didn't happen. Instead, Caltrans decided a replacement bridge would be more cost-effective over the long run. In 1996, officials estimated the cost of simply replacing that ugly old bridge to be a cool $1 billion. Sounds like a bargain, in retrospect.

Then permits happened - slowly. As anyone with a passing acquaintance with Caltrans knows, you can't get a cup of coffee from that place in less than six weeks. In this case, six more years would transpire before all of the environmental impact studies were finished and permits were obtained. The job was supposed to be done by 2007.

It wasn't. Another six years passed. What happened? Outsourcing. Most of the heavy-duty work went to China and South Korea. Design delays. Cost overruns. The usual bureaucratic crap.

Meanwhile, as the latest problems with the new bridge emerged, a tanker in January collided with a tower in the middle of the old Bay Bridge. Look, ships happen.

Obviously, the new Bay Bridge's problems will be fixed. There's no going back now. What's another year or two, if need be? Sure, it would be nice if the bridge opened before my kids are college freshmen, or the next big quake strikes. But it's better to get the job done right than to get it on time.

Remember, though, stuff happens everywhere. Brown is keen on building that high-speed train from Fresno to Los Angeles in the south and San Francisco in the north. The 2008 price tag was $33 billion. Then it ballooned to as much as $120 billion. Oh, boy, the stuff sure hit the fan when that number came out. Now it's $68.4 billion.

Does anyone really believe high-speed rail will be exempt from the same sort of delays and cost overruns as the Bay Bridge? Sometimes, as Brown says, "s--- happens." More often we let statesmen sell us excrement, call it progress, and smile.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at

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