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Golden Gate Barriers?

Another Stalled Bay Area Project

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
(AP Photo)
In our series 'the place that forgot how,' another example of why it seems so hard to get things done around here. How two viewpoints, one emotional and the other practical, can cancel each other out, paralyzing a process for over two decades.

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When Lauren Bacall crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for 50 cents in the 1947 film Dark Passage, no one could have imagined today's crossing: Sardines at high speed: 120,000 cars a day, 45 miles per hour and $5 bucks a car.

Pete Wilson: "On this bridge, with its attention grabbing views and its narrow and precarious open lanes, head-ons kill. It's those head-ons that drive a very old, and very emotional debate."

Everytime there's a fatal accident — 35 since 1970 — the cry for barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge re-emerges.

Robert Guernsey, Citizens for a Safe Golden Gate Bridge: "It's very important. I would not like to loose a loved one, nobody would, but I think it's going to have to take somebody from the district side to loose somebody before they get involved."

Bob Guernsey has been fighting the Golden Gate Bridge District for 20 years.

Insisting a barrier, a movable wall between oncoming lanes, ought to be a top priority. But, "ought" and "can" are two very different things.

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge District: "We've been moving forward on the preliminary engineering work since 1998 to see if the barrier will actually work. Yeah it will fit out there, but will it work and how will it work?"

Early on in the debate, the barrier simply wasn't practical. The designs were too wide. Recently however, engineers have narrowed their designs.

Still, a barrier would reduce already skinny lanes by a half foot, from 10 feet to 9.5.

Safety experts say squeezing drivers would replace one danger with another.

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge District: We are going to take away cross over head-ons, but we are going to increase other types of more frequent minor accidents."

Robert Guernsey, Citizens for a Safe Golden Gate Bridge: "At first, people will be a little afraid of it and they will slow down."

Now, even with workable designs, there are other problems — big ones. Money, for instance. The bridge is currently a quarter billion dollars in the red.

What will a barrier cost?

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge District: "We're probably at $15 to $20 million by the time this thing is all said and done."

That's nearly $2 million for each death since 1970.

But can you put a price on saving a life? If the US government spent what the bridge district would need to spend, the Feds would dole out a trillion dollars to reduce the nation's 50,000 annual highway deaths to zero.

Robert Guernsey, Citizens for a Safe Golden Gate Bridge: "I feel that safety — you can't put a price on it — it's very, very important that these people who commute on a daily basis get a fair and honest shake for their money."

Of course, with this bridge, there are aesthetic concerns — a famously beautiful bridge in a famously beautiful spot.

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge District: "We are anchored by federal lands on both sides. We're sitting in a national park and it's not easy to add or change the environment."

And then there's an unanticipated set of facts that some say argues against a barrier. Since the district lowered the speed limit to 45 and imposed double fines, accidents have dropped 70 percent. There hasn't been a fatal head-on accident here since 2001.

Nonetheless, the old barrier game, the language of negotiation goes on, both sides insisting, really, honestly, it's going to happen, somehow, someday.

Robert Guernsey, Citizens for a Safe Golden Gate Bridge: "When the bridge is satisfied with the answers they've received, and the cry from citizens, it will just be a matter of time."

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge District: "The barrier is a viable and good project."

One in which only time will tell.

Pro-barrier activists are sincerely talking about lives. The district, just as sincerely, can't afford to appear callous no matter the day to day realities. In a way, this has become an Alice in Wonderland debate, an argument that goes on and on even as reality prevents the argument from ever being settled.

In the weeks and months ahead, ABC7 will look at Bay Area projects and problems, both great and small. We'd like your help. Give us examples of projects you think have become frozen in the system as we look at the place that forgot how.

Click here to send an e-mail.

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Last Updated: Jan 14, 2003

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