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The Political Economy of Earthquakes A Journey Across the Bay Bridge

A Journey Across the Bay Bridge

by RICHARD TRAINOR

On a clear November morning I am approaching the toll plaza of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. I pay the $2 crossing toll and begin proceeding west. Of that $2, $1 is a surcharge that was earmarked for the seismic retrofit of the Bay Bridge. This surcharge was created with the 1997 passage of SB 60, a bill authored by then-State Senator Quentin Kopp, the Independent legislator from San Francisco. Kopp was then chairman of the Senate Transportation committee. Now he’s a San Mateo County Superior Judge

SB 60 is easily the biggest juice bill I’ve encounter since I first began covering the California state legislature in 1981. Besides the more than $500 million in Bay Bridge surcharges, which were extended for an additional seven years by ousted Governor Gray Davis in 2001, SB 60 was also the legislative vehicle from which a number of very savvy investors made significant profits during The Bay Bridge selection process.

The Bay Bridge is the world’s busiest toll bridge, with over 280,000 cars crossing it per day. Unlike The Golden Gate Bridge, its sister span to the west, The Bay Bridge is not truly one bridge but, in fact, three. The most graceful part is the suspension bridge connecting Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco. The section between the toll plaza on the Oakland mudflats and Yerba Buena Island is actually composed of two bridges: the first is a viaduct section between the mud flats and a pier of the bridge called E-9 where it is joined to a cantilevered truss bridge. It was here, where the two different bridge typologies join, that The Bay Bridge collapsed in 1989 during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

For eight years, from 1989 through 1997, there was talk of rebuilding The Bay Bridge. But that’s all it was: talk. In 1995, a University of California, Berkeley engineering professor named Dr. Abolhasan Astaneh-Asl prepared an estimate for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) that said it would cost $250 million to do a complete steel retrofit of The Bay Bridge.

But the California State Department of Transportation, or Caltrans as it’s known, does not like steel. Caltrans prefers concrete. As Asatneh remembers it, "They took my design and added what I call the Chernobyl effect." They added massive concrete cladding to Dr. Astaneh’s design, and the estimated cost went up as well. The $250 million grew to become a $700 million estimate, then that grew to $900 million. In late 1996, Caltrans began considering replacing the eastern span with a simple, unadorned viaduct on a straight southern alignment between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island.

But in early 1997, a story was published in The San Francisco Chronicle that altered all such perceptions. The Chronicle story previewed a brand new bridge that was far more attractive than the drab viaduct Caltrans was then espousing.

In the January 9, 1997 Chronicle story, co-authored by Eric Ingram and Greg Lucas, the new bridge design was profiled. It was going to be a 650-foot single-masted, cable-stayed bridge, built out of concrete. The bridge had been the product of a $10 million Caltrans-funded study by Ventry Engineering, and the Ventry team’s chief bridge designer was an engineer named Mark Ketchum, who worked for a San Francisco-based design firm called OPAC.

Remarkably enough, the cable-stayed bridge would be even cheaper to build than retrofitting the present bridge. According to The Chronicle, the new bridge would only cost $700 million. Apparently, the administration of then-Governor Pete Wilson was so enamored of the new idea that in February 1997, Wilson announced that the retrofit option for the Bay Bridge was over; now Wilson wanted a new bridge.

On March 10, 1997, a front-page story was published in The San Francisco Chronicle. The story was by Alan Temko, The Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic. Temko’s story profiled a bridge "designed" by his friend, T.Y. Lin, the U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of engineering. This bridge was also a concrete structure, a 700-foot single-masted, cable-stayed bridge that seemed a mirror image of the Ventry bridge profiled in the story published in The Chronicle just two months before. T.Y. Lin was Mark Ketchum’s professor at Berkeley, and Lin’s firm, Lin Tung-Yen China Inc., also owns OPAC. Ketchum himself admits: "I designed the bridge but then T.Y. added some aesthetic improvements to it." These aesthetic improvements must have been significant for the estimated price had now grown to $1.2 billion, a half billion-dollar increase in only two months.

At any rate, The Chronicle’s lobbying for a new signature span that could compare with The Golden Gate Bridge was effective. Following publication of the Temko story, Governor Wilson took the decision-making power over The Bay Bridge away from Caltrans and handed it to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The MTC is the Regional Planning Organization in charge of all transportation decisions in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. The MTC’s chief lobbyist is John Foran, who is also its founder. Foran was formerly a state Senator from San Francisco, and was the Senate Transportation Committee chairman before he retired to become a lobbyist and senior partner in Nossaman, Guthner, Knox and Elliott.

Nossaman, Guthner is one of the most powerful lobbying firms in California. Besides transportation clients like the MTC, BART and the LA Metro, they also represent a number of Indian tribes and deal with Indian gaming issues. They were also the lobbing firm for a powerful development company called Catellus Development in the spring of 1997, right when the new Bay Bridge design "competition" was taking place.

Back on the bridge, we are approaching pier E-9, otherwise known as "The Angle." This is where the bridge failed in 1989, and where most engineers interviewed for this story say it was most vulnerable because that is where the two bridge typologies join.

While it took eight years for Caltrans and the MTC to get around to fixing it, the Bay Bridge selection process proved to be a profitable one for a number of individuals and groups associated with the firm URS Greiner.

URS is a San Francisco-based corporation that is the nation’s fifth largest engineering and design firm. URS’ chief mover-and-shaker is self-described "money manager" Richard Blum, the husband of California’s U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. URS’ stock performance during The Bay Bridge selection process was fairly dramatic. In late 1996, URS was trading at $6 a share. Then, in early 1997, the stock price began climbing. In spring 1997, it had reached $10 a share; by the summer, after SB 60 was amended with language that all but named the bridge being chosen by the MTC, it had climbed to $13 a share. By June 1998, when a new bridge design had been selected, URS was trading at $18.50 a share.

What makes the URS stock price increases most remarkable is how the stock rises mirror public perceptions that URS stood to profit from the retrofit contract on The Bay Bridge. According to URS’ own literature: "The company derives more than 80% of its revenues from local, state and government programs that are created in response to public concerns with re-building and expanding the nation’s infrastructure. More than 80% of the company’s current and anticipated work is related to government contracts."

On The Bay Bridge contract, #59N770, URS was first in line to become project manager if the project was "contracted out." In other words, if a private company other than Caltrans was given the contract. This process is one which has been in place since 1986 and was the subject of a long and bitter court battle that was finally decided in 1998, which resulted in the ban of contracting out. There was one multi-billion dollar exception to the prohibition against contracting out: The Bay Bridge contract.

In the summer of 1998, when the contracting issue was still being resolved in court, URS stock flucuated. When contracting out was banned in by Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Ford in early July, URS dipped to $12 a share. When the Bay Bridge contract was exempted from the ban, URS spiked upwards to $24.50 a share by late August.

What makes the URS stock price rises even more curious is that a number of Selling Shareholders amendments were filed with the Securities Exchange Commission and how their timing fits in with the chronology of the Bay Bridge selection process.

On March 25, 1997, URS held its annual stockholders meeting in San Francisco and announced they were first in line for the contract. After the meeting, a Selling Shareholders amendment was filed with the SEC. The selling shareholders amendment was for over 3.6 million shares of URS stock whose par value was one penny a share. The amendment allowed the selling shareholders to sell the stock at the going market rate and pocket all the profits without having to share any of it with the company. Of the 3.6 million shares of stock, over 2.9 million shares went to four companies tied to Richard Blum.

The four companies were BK Capital Partners I, II, III, and IV, and they listed that they intended to sell all of the newly issued shares. Blum’s partners in the BK groups were the Bass Brothers, the Fort Worth oil billionaires who once attempted a hostile takeover of Texaco in 1985 by using pension funds from the California State Teachers Retirement System. By August of 1998, those 2.9 million shares of URS stock were worth almost $100 million.

Just three days after the amendments were filed, the MTC announced it had selected a chairman of the Engineering and Design Advisory Panel who would be choosing the new Bay Bridge. The MTC’s choice for EDAP chair was Joseph Nicoletti, an engineer with URS Greiner, Blum’s company.

Blum’s money managing was just short of wizardry. But a number of other URS insiders profited even quicker than BK Capital Partners did. Between March 27, 1998 and June 25, 1998, after a selling shareholders amendment was filed for 1.1 million shares of stock a la the previous 3.6 million shares filed on behalf of the BK Capital groups, a number of URS insiders showed they knew how to play the booming market. URS insiders made over $24.5 million in paper profits from their penny stocks. No wonder there was such a bull market.

So, the new Bay Bridge still hasn’t been built, but who cares when profits like this can be gotten just through the process? But there are other fascinating things to look at as we travel across the three-and-a-half mile Bay Bridge span.

As we approach Yerba Buena Island, off to our right is aptly named Treasure Island, the crown jewel in San Francisco’s future development. This is where the signing party of SB 60 took place. Treasure Island is very important to Mayor Willie Brown’s future development plans, and the reason that Mayor Brown told me he had taken up opposition to the bridge selected by the MTC was that "it would reduce the value of the property at Treasure Island by 20-40%."

Treasure Island was originally intended as the site of San Francisco’s airport before the present location was adopted. Then, in 1939, to commemorate the building of the two new bridges, The Golden Gate and The Bay Bridge, Treasure Island hosted the Golden Gate Exposition, a world’s fair. After that, the U.S. Navy got hold of it and turned it into a naval base. From then until 1992, when it was hit by the Clinton administration’s base closure program, Treasure Island was a navy base. Now it might become the site of Indian gaming casinos, which is one of California’s most lucrative economic engines for the future.

Although Willie Brown told me he has no intention of turning Treasure Island into Atlantic City West, he did float the idea of Indian gambling casinos locating there when he first ran for Mayor of San Francisco in 1995.

If you read between the lines of the Treasure Island Reuse Plan, the idea of Indian gaming casinos doesn’t seem that remote. Citing directly from this document, the plan is for anything that has to do with theme parks, hotels, public attractions, entertainment features and resort. In their own words "the emphasis in the Draft Reuse Plan is on the range of a number of publicly oriented uses that will attract large numbers of people to both public spaces and paid attractions." In short, Indian gaming casinos might fit the bill rather nicely.

Lurking beneath the bay below us, somewhere below the bridge and trailing off towards Treasure Island is the Temescal formation, an ancient underwater river canyon. When the ubiquitous Dr. Astaneh called attention to the Temescal formation, in late 1997, the new bridge alignment was shifted further south. This shift removed the new bridge tower’s anchorage on Yerba Buena Island and caused it to be relocated in caissons going down into the mud. While this decreased the angle, some think that it might have increased the bridge’s seismic vulnerability. This new, more southward-pointing alignment is what Mayor Brown says will reduce the property values on Treasure Island.

But what’s curious is that Mayor Willie Brown didn’t say boo when the Temescal formation was pointed out by Dr. Astaneh, even though his representatives were holding regular meetings on the new Bay Bridge with representatives from Caltrans, Indian tribes, the MTC, the Coast Guard, and the US Navy. That seems very strange, but this entire journey around the Bay is a very strange one indeed.

Now we are entering the tunnel through Yerba Buena Island. On the other side of it we have emerged onto the twin towered suspension span leading into San Francisco. Off to our left, and far to the south, is San Francisco Airport, which is undergoing a new, $3 billion dollar expansion on the Cargill Salt Flats. Blum’s company, URS Greiner is doing the engineering and design work for the airport, and there is talk of a new bullet train stopping at SFO on its way to the Oakland airport and its final northern terminus of Sacramento.

The new bullet train is another huge pork barrel transportation project, a $35 billion state system that will connect Sacramento and the Bay Area to Los Angeles and continue down to San Diego. Nobody is quite sure where it will stop in San Francisco. One plan is for it to stop at the airport; another plan has it continuing to the present Transbay terminal right at the foot of the present bridge, and there are plans for a brand new $500 million terminal.

Closer in, just beyond Pac Bell Park, the new Giants baseball stadium, is where the other prime San Francisco development jewel is located. The long-stalled Mission Bay Project is finally underway. This is a $4 billion project of Catellus Development, the real estate development giant that was once the Southern-Pacific Realty Company. And now there’s even talk of a new bridge across the bay, a Southern Crossing Bridge. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s in favor of it and has been promoting the idea. The MTC is presently studying it. And T.Y. Lin designed a bridge for it back in 1991 when the MTC first looked into it.

A new, Mid-Bay Crossing Bridge would make sense to some. The Bay Area’s transportation infrastructure is maxed out and needs expansion. A Mid-Bay span could result in an expanded BART and carry a high-speed train from SFO to Oakland Airport- another optional route for high-speed trains. Both of the Mayors Brown- Willie of San Francisco and Jerry of Oakland- have said that they want high-speed train stations at their respective airports, and if a Mid Bay Crossing Bridge was contracted out like the Bay Bridge was, it could provide another opportunity for the stock market bulls to keep charging.

The wheels for such a scenario are already in motion. In 2000, two new juice bills were passed by the California state legislature and signed into law by then-Governor Gray Davis. And in the November 2000 election, California voters approved Proposition 35, which allows contracting out again. These new pieces of legislation could provide the opportunity for three publicly traded transportation stocks to achieve windfall profits. And this can happen without a nut or a bolt being turned. All you need is a process to drives a perception that a new bridge or train is coming.

RICHARD TRAINOR is an investigative reporter living in Eugene, Oregon. He can be reached at: richardtrainor@hotmail.com