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The Cost of the Technological Sublime: Daring Ingenuity and the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge


Meg-projects are often captivating to political leaders and the public because of their colossal size and the technical hurdles they overcome. This feature of major infrastructure in the landscape has been termed the 'technological sublime' (Marx, 1964; 2000; Nye, 1994). This chapter uses the concept of the sublime to contribute a new dimension to understanding the evolution of mega-project design and optimism bias. The case of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in Northern California is used to demonstrate how the technological sublime dramatically influenced bridge design, project outcomes, public debate, and the lack of accountability for its excessive cost overruns.

According to David Nye (1994: vxi), the technological sublime 'is about repeated experiences of awe and wonder, often tinged with an element of terror, which people have had when confronted with particular natural sites, architectural forms, and technological achievements.' In the Bay Bridge case, the goal of developing a sublime, new structure became the focal point of the public debate and drove the design and funding process. The project's initial purpose was to replace the bridge's east span, which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Debate focused on designing a 'signature' bridge - a bridge that signifies the technological and aesthetic triumph of the region over the San Francisco Bay, a geologically complicated body of water, and thereby leave a unique signature on the landscape. This daring ingenuity spoke to the interest of many in the Bay Area, but not all, to create a sublime new bridge. The concept of the 'technological sublime' provides a theoretical context for interpreting underlying motivations, optimism, and rhetoric of political leaders and participants advocating for not only a mega-project, but a 'mega-landmark.' The basis for the analysis is the results of in-depth interviews with approximately 45 key participants and extensive review of project-related documents and media accounts.

First, the background on mega-project characteristics and the technological sublime is reviewed. Then an overview of the existing Bay Bridge and the design process for the new bridge is provided. The chapter concludes with observations about the impact of the technological sublime on the planning process, project design and implementation, as well as implications for analyses of other mega-projects.

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