SAN FRANCISCO — Eleven years ago, everyone agreed that the powerful Loma Prieta earthquake had so shaken the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge that it urgently needed to be restored or replaced.
So why did it take until last week for officials to collectively decide how to fix what is the nation's busiest toll bridge?
The answer is politics.
"It's mind-boggling how politicians have blundered, battled and blatantly ignored the public safety while we sit on this seismic time bomb," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which has overseen the state's efforts to overhaul the bridge.
Embarrassed Bay Area officials blame the acrimonious stalemate on petty turf battles among local, state and federal agencies that have caused years of delay and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns.
And as the Bay Area today marks the 11th anniversary of the 7.1 magnitude temblor that collapsed a 50-foot section of the eight-mile, double-decker bridge, many wonder whether the ongoing political gamesmanship poses a threat to public safety.
DeSaulnier said: "If another quake hits before we're through with our work and people are killed, there's going to be hell to pay."
Caltrans has argued for years that the best solution is to replace the earthquake-weakened eastern section with a distinctive single-tower span that officials say will give the blue-collar Bay Bridge a touch of class to match even the heralded Golden Gate.
Critics have seen nothing but a dangerous house of cards. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has cited "frightening" evidence that the new span would be unsafe in a major quake and has pushed for a less costly retrofit. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has more aesthetic complaints, terming the project downright ugly, "a freeway on stilts."
The Navy has said Caltrans' plan would cast a shadow over its historic 100-year-old Nimitz House on Yerba Buena Island, where World War II naval hero Admiral Chester Nimitz spent his last days.
Navy officials, who have kept bases on Yerba Buena and on Treasure Island since the 1940s, became so vehement that they even blocked Caltrans engineers from visiting the site to conduct tests.
Last week, in a surprise move that officials hope will break the impasse, the federal government said it was transferring to the state a key piece of Yerba Buena needed to anchor the eastern span of the Caltrans bridge--effectively removing the Navy's only bargaining chip.
Michael Ritchie, Sacramento division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, said: "This very crucial project is no longer going to be held up by technicalities."
The 63-year-old bridge has long been the region's workhorse, handling the bulk of Bay Area commuters--280,000 vehicles each day. While the Golden Gate is considered more glamorous, the Bay Bridge is among the world's longest and tallest bridges.
Repairs are complicated by two major nearby fault lines--the San Andreas and the Hayward. Another challenge is that the Bay Bridge is actually two bridges connected by a tunnel at the Yerba Buena midpoint, engineers say.
The western section escaped serious damage in 1989 and is undergoing a $170-million retrofitting to strengthen it nevertheless.
But the Loma Prieta quake was not as kind to the bridge's eastern span.
Centered 50 miles away, the quake shook the structure for 12 seconds, causing an upper part of the eastern deck to give way, killing a woman. The bridge was closed for a month.
The political fireworks began in 1997 when Caltrans dropped a retrofitting plan for the eastern section and decided instead to construct an entirely new span from Yerba Buena to Oakland.
After first supporting the project, Mayor Willie Brown changed his mind, state officials say.
Brown insisted that Caltrans' proposed location for the span would shatter San Francisco's dream of developing Yerba Buena Island and wanted it moved south. The city plans to develop hotels, restaurants and a conference center on the island, which is being deeded to San Francisco by the Navy after the recent closure of the base there.
"It was pretty clear to him that Caltrans was ramming this project through, ignoring alternatives that might be faster, cheaper and better for communities near where the bridge would be built," said P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for Brown.
The San Francisco mayor cited a study by a UC Berkeley professor saying that Caltrans' bridge would suffer serious damage in a 7.3 magnitude quake. Caltrans denies the claim.
Brown also asked the Army Corps of Engineers to examine the Caltrans bridge design and whether retrofitting the old span was still an option.
"We're talking about a bridge that will serve the area for most of the 21st century," Johnston said. "And Mayor Brown doesn't think it's wise to build anything without asking critical questions like, 'Is it safe?' "