Design Differs from Politics

Mr. Finley could not be further off the mark with his pontificating on American bridge design practice in the Viewpoint, "America Can Build Better Bridges". Bridge engineers in the U.S. do not control either the politics or the process of project delivery. It is not a reflection on technical prowess, but rather a political reality.

It is not clear whether Mr. Finley's comparisons of the Bay bridge to France's Millau Viaduct represent a layman's innocence or an engineer's ignorance. Millau is magnificent and an achievement for the ages. But it is built in an open site on terra-firma and designed primarily for wind loads. The Bay bridge sits over 100 meters of mud adjacent to an earthquake fault, and is designed to the most rigorous earthquake standards in the world. Laymen may not understand the difference, but engineers should. Likewise, to compare the hard dollar bid on the Bay bridge in the U.S. with a long-term concession of France's Millau is misleading at best. Toll earnings on Millau will dwarf the capital cost..

The fact is that the Bay bridge represents the best earthquake engineering that the world has to offer. That may be lost on those who do not understand the state of the art, but is not lost on those who are responsible for delivering reliable bridge designs. And the construction of the Bay bridge foundations was an example of the best heavy foundation and marine engineering to be found anywhere. Some of the same engineers who designed the Bay bridge are designing landmark bridges in China that Mr. Finley champions, and in less time than we in the U.S. take to write an EIS.

The difference lies squarely with a delivery system that often employs as many attorneys as engineers, that allows builders to translate "difficult" into "impossible," and that confuses promotion and performance. These are not technical issues, but political handicaps.

Mr. Finley is correct on one point. Our engineers are among the world's elite. The engineering technology employed by U.S. engineers for the Bay bridge is the gold standard around the world for earthquake engineering.

Enough Mediocrity

Good job! The guys in my division are tired of me complaining about how lack-luster American design has become, and they're tired of me bringing in photos from articles of absolutely artistic structures from all over the world. They finally had enough when I couldn't stop talking about the Millau Viaduct. Not only for its design, but for the way in which it was erected.

Unfortunately, our small county will never have the opportunity of a grand project. But as a design engineer, I can say I totally agree with your article. Our system is broken, and for whatever reason, it needs serious attention. And if a solution cannot be found, I would be the first to suggest that we seek some design solutions from foreign sources.

What you said should have been said long ago. Now that it has been said, lets hope it does some good.