Art McDaniel/North Harbor Drive Bridge. Fish and Wildlife stopped the permit process entirely by claiming that the city was destroying a fishing resource - removing the wooden pilings of the old bridge would disturb the mussels.
If you are one of the thousands of people who use Harbor Drive every day, you probably thought that bridge construction near the Naval Training Center would never be completed. More than seven years passed from the time the project began until its completion June 2, when the bridge was officially dedicated with a parade, ribbon cutting, benediction — the works. Says Art McDaniel, designer of the bridge, “When you can complete construction of something today, you have every reason to celebrate.” Actual building of the bridge was relatively easy, says McDaniel. The challenge was in securing permits, placating bureaucrats, and avoiding strangulation by red tape. Somehow. McDaniel managed to survive a boggling entanglement of interagency constraints that would have tested the greatest of escape artists. In fact, at one point, it became necessary to involve President Jimmy Carter himself. But more of that later.
Art McDaniel received his engineering degree from the University of Southern California after World War II. In the early part of his career, he found himself part of the team brought together to design the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge in Long Beach. Later he moved his family to San Diego and continued his career as a bridge engineer. In 1969 he took on the design for a replacement bridge for the old West Mission Bay causeway crossing (what was known as the Ventura Bridge) that delivered traffic into Mission Beach from the Islandia Hotel area. That project, which won an American Society of Civil Engineers “Outstanding Achievement Award,” was a water crossing similar in scope to the North Harbor Drive bridge. “These two projects,” McDaniel says, “tell the whole nightmare of being forced to accept those ‘free’ federal dollars. ” The first project, entirely under the jurisdiction of the City of San Diego, took less than three years from earliest conception to cutting the ribbon. The second project, accomplished with federal “help,” took more than seven years. “They were only five years apart in calendar time,” McDaniel says, but in terms of how they were processed, they were light years apart.”
Art McDaniel’s firm, McDaniel Engineering. has become known as a company that specializes in bridges, and a visit to the office on Cass Street in Pacific Beach certainly reinforces that image. Photographs, sketches, architect’s renderings. and post cards from all over the world adorn the walls — all of bridges. McDaniel is active in professional societies and has served as president of the San Diego section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and as state chairman of the society’s California Council. Next October he will go to Hollywood, Florida, to be sworn in as a national director of the 70,000-man organization. He has crisscrossed both Eastern and Western Europe and says that his art galleries, his museums, and historical archives are (he bridges of those countries. Surprisingly, for an engineer, he speaks much of beauty and of the sense of duty engineers should feel toward preserving God’s landscape when they are straddling it with structures that will sometimes last a hundred years or more. “Earthquakes,” he says, “do occasionally serve a useful purpose.” He is critical of what he terms “a lingering tendency (of engineers) to concentrate solely on structural requirements in the vague and ill-founded hope that appearance will look after itself. ' ' The humblest new bridge, ’ ’ he says, “can enhance rather than detract from its setting.” A company photograph portfolio of bridges bears the motto: “Beyond the rational thinking of the engineer towards strength requirements, there must be an aim and a willingness to seek sensible ways to incorporate beauty.” Among local bridges. McDaniel favors the Cabrillo, spanning Highway 163 in Balboa Park, for its old-fashioned, nostalgic appeal. The Coronado Bridge over San Diego Bay is another project for which he has some admiration; it’s not too spectacular, but its height, geometry, and color are appealing. His unqualified praise, however, is reserved for the Lilac Road Bridge over Interstate 15 about ten miles north of Escondido, which was designed and built by CalTrans. “It’s a masterpiece,” he says. “It’s right, engineering-wise, and spectacularly beautiful. It adds something to the site; you could call it grandeur. Looking north, it frames the valley. And the cost was low, too. Everything was correct.”
When he accepted the challenge of replacing the old Ventura Bridge. McDaniel knew the replacement would have to fit the appearance of surrounding Mission Bay Park. The bridge to be replaced was a wooden structure that came to be known as the oldest temporary bridge on record. Built as an interim, two-year facility in 1948, it had, by 1969, become a rotted hulk which, according to City Engineer Jim Casey, had developed a lean almost as pronounced as Pisa’s famous tower. In addition to being structurally unsound, it had become a notorious traffic hazard. Not infrequently throughout its history, cars failed to negotiate the old bridge’s sweeping approach curve and piled head-on into an oncoming auto, or shattered through the wooden railing and into the bay.
The new bridge construction, though completed in a little more than eighteen months, was not without complications. At one point the firm took delivery of the giant concrete pilings that would support the span, only to find cracks in nearly all of them. The cracks were mended and the colossal pilings were successfully driven more than seventy-five feet below the bay mudline. Still not totally satisfied, McDaniel, an amateur scuba diver, decided to recheck the pilings for cracks. He donned his gear, slipped into one of the pilings (whose hollow inner diameter measured forty-four inches), and nervously lowered himself a hundred feet to the bottom. Subsequently. he similarly inspected all of the pilings and eventually ordered the pilings tremied, a complicated, time-consuming task in which the pilings are filled with concrete and reinforced with steel.
McDaniel is proud of his role in the Ventura Bridge (now officially renamed the Glen Rick Bridge in honor of the former city planning director who led the way in Mission Bay’s development). He delights in telling the story of how he recruited a team of divers to harvest scallops from the old bridge pilings and replant them in more enduring quarters in Quivira Basin. “This was prior to any mandated environmental policies,” he notes. Likewise, he is fond of the seagull story. His bridge plans called for “seagull discouragers.” consisting of sharpened spikes, to prevent the birds from soiling his light standards with their inconsiderate droppings. “It took them about five minutes to learn how to foil the plan and it was beautiful to watch,” McDaniel recalls. (The birds would approach the lights sideways, plant down one foot, then gracefully raise up the other.) Plans for the North Harbor Drive Bridge, he thinks, are more sophisticated. “I’ve studied their landing techniques more thoroughly. It’s still the spike idea but something new has been added. We put a doughnutlike ring around the top that should keep them off. Maybe. ”
From an engineering standpoint, replacing the Harbor Drive Bridge was to be a giant headache. The task would require the replacement of a 700-foot bridge practically on the same alignment, while maintaining a flow of traffic through the site; city engineers had charted 40,000 vehicles per day. Sixty feet south of the structure lay two major sewer mains that could easily be ruptured if normal piledriving techniques were utilized. Eighty feet to the north stood a footbridge on Navy property that would prohibit the use of heavy equipment in that area and further restrict new bridge realignment possibilities. Dredging on the site was ruled out because of the long and costly process of gaining the needed permits, thereby preventing the use of standard, deep-draft marine barges normally used in bridge construction. Small, shallow-draft barges often used in unusual situations were initially thought to be unavailable on the West Coast. So construction of a new bridge would be an extremely difficult task. Looking back on it, however, McDaniel believes that building the bridge was the easiest part.
Though the design for the bridge was begun in August, 1973, construction wasn’t commenced until August 1978; the five-year delay not being the result of the aforementioned design difficulties or construction problems, but rather of the maze of government restrictions. Says McDaniel: “Keep in mind that this was not a controversial project such as a nuclear plant, an oil refinery, or a hospital in Balboa Park. It was the simple, routine widening of an existing roadway. The bridge would replace a substandard timber span built in 1942 and that is a vital and indispensable link in a major traffic corridor serving the Point Loma-Airport-Harbor Island-downtown San Diego area. It had to be constructed — if not now, then certainly a few years hence.”
In the beginning, the process went smoothly, with local city departments completely reviewing the project and forwarding it to Sacramento. In the state capital, the plan was quickly processed by the California Department of Transportation’s bridge department, where it was received favorably and with a good deal of interest. Next stop — CalTrans District II for “review of the minor roadwork involved, and the boiler-plate sections of the specifications” and for official transmittal to Sacramento. Elapsed time: fifteen months. Finally, though, the plans were processed and approved by all government agencies. The environmental documents, as well, were completed to the satisfaction of both the California and the national environmental protective acts. Next came the permit stage and a review by the United States Coast Guard, which will not begin processing any application until all plans, specifications, and environmental documents have been approved by all other reviewing agencies. The Coast Guard then advertised for public hearings, ignoring the fact that public hearings were required by the agencies whose approval had already been received. This essentially returned the project to the first step, while costs of delayed construction continued to climb.
During this period of limbo, the bridge project came to the attention of representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. They stopped the permit process entirely by claiming that the city was destroying a fishing resource. This was based on the assertion that removing the wooden pilings of the old bridge would disturb the mussels, which were a food source for the area’s fish. The agencies’ solution? Leave the pilings in place. McDaniel suggested that that was hardly a practical solution. The concerned representatives then asked how the builders might “mitigate” the damage of destroying the mussels’ home. McDaniel offered the possibility of harvesting the mussels and replanting them elsewhere, for which a precedent existed on the Ventura Bridge. At this point the gentlemen from the two federal agencies said that “mitigation” was, perhaps, the wrong term; “compensation,” they said, might be a better word. McDaniel believes that the right word was “blackmail.” “Anyway, before we could reach for our wallets,” he relates, “the representatives suggested that building a fishing pier nearby might be appropriate ‘compensation.’” McDaniel informed them that the Port District’s general plan for the area called for building a fishing pier in that very location as soon as some temporary water pollution cleared up and funds were available. The federal representatives felt that such construction would not be proper compensation because the city was causing the damage, and the city (not the Port District) should provide the compensation. The gentlemen threatened to recommend denial of the project. Asked by McDaniel on what basis they could equitably recommend the denial of the project, they replied that they needed no basis. McDaniel has a tape of this meeting. “Occasionally, when I begin to mellow and think perhaps the lunatics aren’t really in charge of the asylum, I take out the tape and play it.”
At this point McDaniel decided to go right to the top. He fired off his letter to President Jimmy Carter, outlining the problems that had occurred to that point. He then continued, “My concern in this matter now exceeds the bounds of a mere construction project. The circumstances that permit minor functionaries from obscure federal agencies to bully and blackmail a major city are totally outrageous. Such arrogance is inexcusable. Such power exhibited callously, irresponsibly, and incompetently is frightening and precisely reminiscent of totalitarian government regimes. If San Diego, ninth largest city in the United States, must bend to the whimsy and careless demands of petty bureaucrats, where does the individual stand against the federal government? I represent a small professional business firm in private practice as a consulting civil engineer. My personal fortunes have been sorely affected by the unanticipated and interminable length of this project. Of much greater import, however, is an erosion of faith in my government, which I now perceive to be a Catch-22 bureaucratic morass, an irresponsible, ubiquitous powerful complexity of federal agencies running amok, without system or procedure, with utter disregard for schedules costs, efficiency, or the public interest and in many cases, sadly lacking experience, competence, and wisdom in the very areas in which they are, apparently franchised to impose dictatorial man dates.”
“It was an angry letter,” McDaniel says, “and I never write angry letters. But it does accurately reflect my feelings of those times. And you know, one of the scary aspects of dealing with the government is that there is simply no place to turn for help.”
Six weeks later the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration replied from Washington, D.C.: “The President has requested (that we] respond to your letter. . . . Apparently there has been a serious misunderstanding of the role our agency has played in the permit review process for the North Harbor Drive Bridge. We share your concern over the long delay involved and understand our frustration. ” The agency rescinded its denial of the Coast Guard permit. The Fish and Wildlife people continued to object, but in McDaniel’s estimation, “I think the Coast Guard eventually decided that their claim was petty and irresponsible.”
McDaniel can relate other ludicrous and useless (but costly) exercises with which his project was burdened. For instance, noise studies had to be conducted in the same manner that might be required for a new jet-testing facility. This, in spite of the facts that the project was a mere roadway widening of an existing facility, adjacent to a military base, with no adjacent residences, and that the area lay directly under the airport flight path. The environmental responses came back with a cure. A block wall twelve to twenty-two feet in height placed along the right-of-way, and presumably the edge of bridge, would solve the noise problem.
Finally, with everyone satisfied and with five years of delays behind them, McDaniel Engineering and the City of San Diego rolled up their collective sleeves and prepared to get on with the original goal, which had by now become somewhat hazy. Then came a telephone call from the city. It would be necessary, they said, to meet with the Army Corps of Engineers and review the job once more with them. This came as an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to McDaniel because he had taken pains to avoid filling or dredging below the mean low tide, an action that automatically calls for a review by the Corps. Besides, the Corps had previously stated by letter that a permit was not required. The meeting was scheduled, with all interested parties once again assembled. The Corps reviewed the plans and determined that no permit would be required. McDaniel recalls that the meeting was on the verge of adjournment when a voice from the Corps said, “Let’s look at the pier construction again.” How would the pier bases be made level, queried the Corps. McDaniel’s firm replied to the effect that it was not the contractor on the job. but that leveling could probably be accomplished by “sort of dragging the bottom of the bay with a clamshell or maybe hydraulically with water pressure.” Said the Corps: “That would constitute dredging, and a permit would definitely be required.”
McDaniel has only a dazed recollection of what happened next, but says if he were writing an absurdist play, the scenario might resemble the following:
Scene: Twelve engineers seated around a table. Suits and ties, general gloom.
Engineer 1: (SOFTLY) “How long will a permit take?”
Corps: (CASUALLY) “Oh, we never know. It could take a year or more.”
Engineer 2: (DESPERATELY) “You know we’re in our fifth year.”
Corps: (EMPATHETICALLY) “Oh, I know. We get caught up in this mess with our own projects.”
The Corps was reminded of their letter, but said, “Well, you know, staffs change.” Finally, McDaniel asked the representatives of the Corps of Engineers to define dredging. They defined, in rather vague terms, what constituted dredging. “Suppose,” suggested McDaniel, “that we required the contractor to ‘clam’ the silt, load it on barges, and haul it away.” “That would constitute ‘excavation,’” answered the Corps. “No permit is needed for excavation.”
Suddenly, McDaniel saw his opportunity. He agreed to revise the plans and specifically state the material had to be mucked up and hauled away on trucks. But once again, before the meeting could be adjourned, the Corps spoke up. “You know, we hate to change our minds again,” they said, “but we think that’s still dredging. We must insist upon a permit. ”
“To hell with it all,” replied McDaniel. “I designed this bridge to permit a unique construction option that would save us three-quarters of a million dollars. That option, however, requires a piddling amount of leveling of sand at the pier bases, which we are now told, after all this time, will require a Corps permit. That permit will take a year of more, some undefined time, and will cost this project more than we can save. Let’s take the option out and build the substructure by conventional means.” A lengthy silence followed, during which time McDaniel suspects some deep thinking was occurring. At last the Corps responded and said, “We agree. That really doesn’t appear to be dredging. We aren’t going to require a permit.” So there it was, according to McDaniel, a question of semantics, with the cost of the interpretation of a word too fearful to contemplate. “And that,” says McDaniel, “is a large point. Agencies today are forgoing logic and thinking and attempting to codify every thought, word, and deed in their policy and procedure manuals. It is the literal, unthinking, uncompromising interpretation and rigid implementation of these vague bureaucratic tomes that is causing logic to become a dying virtue and innovation a hopeless and unappreciated effort.”
And so, finally, ended the five-year design and review epic of the North Harbor Drive Bridge over the Navy estuary in San Diego. A wandering tale perhaps, but a persistent, frustrating quest that did eventually end in success. The bridge, now constructed, is an attractive and useful addition to the cityscape. McDaniel says that construction, once it began, proceeded without a single hitch; the bridge was built precisely as originally intended. Half a decade of giving every interested party a voice in its construction produced no changes — except a substantial increase in cost to the taxpayers and a lasting cynicism on McDaniel’s part toward his government. which he now views as incompetent to manage our affairs and dangerous to his mental health, as well as to the economic health of the country. “I wish it weren’t so,” he says wistfully, “but personal experience leads me to think otherwise. ”