Garcia: Will the state truly fix the freeway? 

The beautiful Bay that gives our region its name also serves as a reminder of how quickly, by accident, a peninsula can resemble an island.

With the stunning collapse of the MacArthur Maze interchange near the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza, residents here once again realize how fragile any transportation system is that relies on a series of lengthy water-crossing spans. The smallest things, like a lost highway connection, serve as a wakeup call to a public still overly reliant on cars. And nearly 20 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake pancaked another freeway in Oakland and closed the Bay Bridge for weeks, all the political infighting among politicians about who is to blame for the delayed bridge retrofit makes a once-mighty nation-state seem small.

If one tanker truck can throw the commute patterns of millions of people into chaos — or at least cause a lingering travel headache for months — then it will seem as if we can’t learn the lessons of Loma Prieta despite the certainty that another temblor will shake our core in the coming decades. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to help state officials deal with the freeway mess more quickly, but it just shows how a random event can affect so many lives.

And in a way we are lucky that no lives were lost in the tanker truck explosion, which certainly had the potential of mirroring the disastrous Caldecott Tunnel fire in the early 1980s in which seven people died. Yet watching the video of the freeway essentially melting before it fell early Sunday more closely reminded me of the Cypress Freeway overpass that collapsed in West Oakland during Loma Prieta and its ramifications for those poor souls who counted on it as a daily transportation line.

I spent nearly two weeks working under that freeway in 1989 as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a vigil that for the hordes of journalists produced a number of fairly remarkable stories, ranging from the rescue of Buck Helm four days after the earthquake to the pieces on the faulty freeway construction.

But for those of us who had to work late and return early, the freeway overpass collapse was really more of a reminder about how one link in the region’s highway chain could throw the whole system out of whack. When the Bay Bridge closed after a section of the top span fell, the only way back to San Francisco by car was over the San Mateo or Richmond/San Rafael bridges — such a time-consuming and circuitous trek that those of us with families in San Francisco never got to see them. Indeed, The City seemed as far away as San Jose rather than the familiar 25-minute drive.

And while the early reports were that Monday morning’s commute was hardly the nightmare a lot of experts were predicting, it’s certain to be troublesome over the coming weeks and months for hundreds of thousands of people who must use alternate routes to reach their destination.

One thing to look for will be how California’s leaders react to the situation. The state Department of Transportation has hardly been a model of efficiency in dealing with California’s highway issues — though part of the agency’s problem in the past has been the lack of funding for so many necessary projects.

The Bay Bridge retrofit plan has been one of the longest-running government misfires in state history, and it would be hard to see how the state would be able to rebuild the MacArthur Maze as quickly as needed.

Yet it can be done. Anyone who remembers the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles can recall the damage to Interstate 10 — one of the nation’s busiest freeways. Gov. Pete Wilson gave millions of dollars in incentives to the company working on the project and the contractor completed the freeway fix-up in 66 days. That was a remarkable turnaround on a project considerably larger than the one at issue in the East Bay.

So it seems somewhat difficult to believe that the proud state of California may not have the wherewithal to find enough steel to do the freeway repair in a timely fashion — at least according to the chief engineer on the project. And while it may be a good idea for Caltrans to try to lower expectations — remember, the Loma Prieta temblor hit in 1989 and the Bay Bridge retrofit just began recently — I would think that leaders of the Golden State would be able to bring its vast resources to bear on this problem.

Otherwise, the term "stranded "is going to suffer from overuse and the 3.5 billion work hours Americans lose stuck in traffic each year will need to be readjusted.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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