Last week, both houses of the California legislature voted to request that Caltrans, the state’s transportation department, name the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after Willie Brown. A giant in California politics and the state’s most well-known black politician, Brown served as speaker of the State Assembly for 15 years before serving another eight as mayor of San Francisco, accomplishments for which the NAACP sponsored the plan to rename the bridge’s older, western span after him.
Critics howled in protest. “Even the newspaper for which Brown writes a column, the San Francisco Chronicle, opposes the idea,” editorialized the San Jose Mercury News. The outraged is justified, but not because of naming the bridge after a living politician. (It wouldn’t be the first Bay Area transportation project to earn that dubious honor. Rod Diridon, cheerleader of many a failed Silicon Valley transit scheme, has his name affixed to San Jose’s central station).
Rather, it’s because Brown epitomizes everything wrong with large transportation projects in the Bay Area.
But there’s an equitable solution for everybody: Name the eastern span of the bridge, that boondogglous Big Dig on the Bay — the Bay Area’s equivalent of Boston’s disastrous, budget-busting road work megaproject — after Brown instead. The former mayor gets a monument, and one commensurate with his impact on the region’s transportation.
Brown’s contributions to Bay Area transportation policy are endless, but the Mercury News lays out one of the most pertinent: His initial opposition to the bridge, back when he was mayor of San Francisco.
It was Brown’s selfish actions that prompted a two-year delay in the construction of the eastern span and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in supplemental studies and inflationary costs. While right-thinking people were concerned about replacing the span that broke in the 1989 earthquake, Brown and others promoting the development of Yerba Buena Island attacked the new bridge for their own purposes. The delay ended only after White House intervention.
What started out as a roughly $1 billion plan to replace the span, damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, ballooned over seven delayed years into a $6.4 billion project. The Bay Area has its fair share of poorly thought-out transportation projects, but it’s hard to beat the Bay Bridge’s eastern span for sheer waste.
The first thing to know about the eastern span is that it was, for the most part, unnecessary. “This stretch of the bay is largely mudflats,” wrote the Chronicle‘s John King in his review of the span, “where the only real need for something besides a roadway on piers is a half-mile before Yerba Buena Island.”
But Mayor Brown — the other one, Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland, now California’s governor for the second time — wanted a “signature” span to put Oakland on the map. So the state went all-out on a cable-stayed bridge, a modern take on the traditional suspension design.
Never mind that it was overkill. When the Bay Area wants a flashy transportation project, it gets its flashy transportation project. And while many ordinary residents are well aware of the tremendous Bay Bridge cost overruns, Willie Brown’s own transportation legacy is less known, and deserves to be memorialized.
Impressively for a man who spent more than two decades as a high-ranking California official, some of Brown’s most teachable moments came after he left office. Among his most quotable was something he wrote in July Chronicle column:
News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.
Of course, Brown also has a personal stake in the Transbay Terminal redevelopment, a real estate deal grafted on top of a new Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail terminal: He’ll earn $750,000 for lobbying on behalf of the project’s developers.
And while revolving-door deals are nothing new, former Mayor Brown has made an art of it. He has also been on the payroll of AECOM, a contractor with its fingers in both the Transbay Terminal as well as the Central Subway — a “dog” of a project, as former San Francisco Supervisor Quentin Kopp has called it, that’s beloved by Chinatown power broker Rose Pak but which has found many critics among Bay Area transit advocates.
And just last week, we learned about another revolving door Brown has stepped through: He will go to bat for AnsaldoBreda, manufacturer of Muni’s problem-ridden light rail vehicles. The company was disqualified for bidding on the next contract — in fact, San Francisco is far from the only buyer to get burned by a AnsaldoBreda purchase — so it hired Brown, ostensibly in his capacity as a lawyer, to convince the city to reverse its decision.
From the “time is money” aspect of public works projects to strategic misrepresentation, Robert Moses’ “shovel in the ground” lesson to the revolving door, Willie Brown is a shining example of all of the reasons that transportation projects in the Bay Area rarely live up to their costs.
“Everything about it is appropriate,” said one Bay Area transit activist of the bridge naming. “It is actually quite fitting that the bridge is named after Willie Brown, as a testament to the cost of making political corruption seem normal.”
Now if only they could switch the name from the western span to the eastern one.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.