Let me offer a quote from Leslie Knope, fictional city councilwoman of the city of Pawnee, IN, in the sitcom, “Parks and Recreation.” She’s in a budget fight with libertarian Parks & Rec Director Ron Swanson over whether to fund a public putt-putt course, and offers this description of government’s functions:
“There are just certain things that you don’t cut! Schools, police, mini-golf, merry-go-rounds, parades, gazebo repair,” she coos before begrudgingly adding, “roads and bridges, whatever,” and back to cooing: “Pretty gardens, hummingbird feeders!”
And, that’s kind of the problem with a government that does too much that’s outside its proper scope. The putt-putt and the parades are so much more fun than the drudgery of infrastructure, and a government can commit itself to so many things, it ends up being no good at any of them. Most people, of any ideology, will agree that basic infrastructure like roads and bridges is a core government concern. After all, it’s the justification for every time politicians of any stripe beg for more tax money after having frivolously spent your money on things other than roads and bridges. (Although, it’s worth noting, government is by no means a necessity for building roads, as the citizens of Kauai found.)
Maybe in California, the state government should have torn itself away from condom delivery services and a $70-billion high-speed rail boondoggle that no one believes will actually be high speed to make sure the bolts on the $6 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project weren’t broken.
Just three months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the Bay Bridge, pushed a glowing button that started a countdown for the Labor Day opening of the new span, and spoke loftily of exciting plans in store for the gleaming new structure.
“We’re going to have a bicycle race, running, walking — tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people,” Brown told a television reporter in a segment that ran just after the San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl.
“It was big in 1936 when we were in a Depression,” he said of the first Bay Bridge opening. “It ought to be just as big this time.”
Tuesday, Brown had a saltier way of describing the moment he was in, after weeks of controversy over cracked bolts on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge that threatens to delay the opening: “Don’t know if it’s a setback. I mean, look, shit happens.”
The Democratic governor stressed that people shouldn’t “pull our hair out” over something like the structural integrity of the state’s most traversed bridge:
Brown since last summer has maintained unwavering support for the state’s construction and oversight of the new bridge, dismissing questions about its structural integrity.
He said this morning, “There are very professional engineers that are looking at this thing, and when they’re ready to give us their report, I think the public will be satisfied.”
Right now, the governor is “optimistic until proven otherwise.” Here’s the background on the cracked bolts, and Brown’s advocacy for this new span of the bridge. It’s not the first doubt about structural integrity the bridge has faced.
Three dozen cracked bolts — discovered by Caltrans bridge engineers in mid-March — on the new bridge’s single tower suspension span could throw a wrench into those plans. Administration officials may be forced to delay the opening of the new span of the Bay Bridge — in the works since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — depending on the results of a study to be released Wednesday.
Since the bolts were discovered, Brown had refrained from commenting on a project that he’d embraced as far back as when he was running for mayor in Oakland and had pushed for a spectacular design that could serve as a “civic symbol” for Oakland, a triumph of design and function.
At the time, then-Gov. Pete Wilson sought a more utilitarian replacement span, which was panned by Elihu Harris, Oakland’s outgoing mayor, as “a freeway on stilts.” Harris, Brown and other leaders saw the new Bay Bridge as a gateway, a chance to show off the Oakland ports and hills.
“We want excellence, not average,” said Brown, who’d just been elected as mayor.
Focus, California. This is the important stuff. And, as President Obama says, don’t let
experience with dangerous incompetence cynicism get you down.