Remaking the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge: A Case of Shadowboxing with Nature

Karen Trapenberg Frick
03 Aug 2015

Now available in paperback

On 17 October 1989 one the largest earthquakes to occur in California since the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 struck Northern California. Damage was extensive, none more so than the partial collapse of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span, a vital link used by hundreds of thousands of Californians every day.
The bridge was closed for a month for repairs and then reopened to traffic. But what ensued over the next 25 years is the extraordinary story that Karen Trapenberg Frick tells here. It is a cautionary tale to which any governing authority embarking on a megaproject should pay heed. She describes the process by which the bridge was eventually replaced as an exercise in shadowboxing which pitted the combined talents and shortcomings, partnerships and jealousies, ingenuity and obtuseness, generosity and parsimony of the State’s and the region’s leading elected officials, engineers, architects and other members of the governing elites against a collectively imagined future catastrophe of unknown proportions. In so doing she highlights three key questions:
  • If safety was the reason to replace the bridge, why did it take almost 25 years to doso?
  • How did an original estimate of $250 million in 1995 soar to $6.5 billion by 2014?
  • And why was such a complex design chosen?
Her final chapter – part epilogue, part reflection – provides recommendations to improve megaproject delivery and design. Karen Trapenberg Frick is Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, Co-Director of the University of California Transportation Center and Assistant Director of the University of California Center on Economic Competitiveness in Transportation.


  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations and Sources
    1.  Mind over Matter
    2.  Field Guide to Megaproject Interpretation
  • Part 1: Time in Suspension
    3. Past as Prologue 
    4.  Engineering between the Fault Lines 
  • Part 2: A Race Against Time
    5.  Shockwaves by Design 
    6.  Ground Motions when Pedalling for a Pathway and Train Tracks
  • Part 3: Hurry up and Wait … and Wait
    7.  Freefalling to Vertigo 
    8. Back to the Future: the ‘Big One’ of Skyrocketing Costs
    9. Aftershock: Hubris and Shadowboxing with Nature
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Appendix A1. Bay Bridge Cost Increases
  • Appendix A2. Key State Legislation for Bay Bridge’s New East Span
  • References