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Why the Coronado Bridge is long and curved instead of short and straight

In addition to loving skyscrapers I also have a thing about bridges, and I periodically feature a picture of a bridge at my Culture Blog. Sometimes the pictures are taken by me, of one or other of the many bridges of London. Sometimes they are acquired from the infinity of information that is the Internet.

Some while ago I featured the Coronado Bridge, which is next to San Diego. In that connection someone else drew my attention to another splendid bridge in Macao. Commenting on that posting, Phil Cohen has this to say about the Coronado Bridge:

The original design for the Coronado Bridge was a much shorter, and almost straight span to the Island (actually, peninsula). Then in order to qualify for federal funding, (whereby our government pays most of the tab), the City of San Diego curved and lengthened the bridge to meet the minimum length standard that would qualify the Coronado Bridge for Federal funding.

How about that for an unintended consequence of taxpayer funding. They help you if yours is a long bridge, so San Diego builds a long bridge instead of a short bridge!

If you want to see even more clearly what Phil Cohen is talking about, just take a look at this map!

It is very rare that government spending has such conspicuously visible results. Normally, when governments waste money – which is what they mostly do with money, after all – the waste all happens tucked away in offices and in the form of a few thousand quietly invisible salaries for suburbanites. For every Concorde or Space Shuttle or daft piece of architecture there are a hundred bits of wastage that are no more exciting to look at than evaporating water. But this Coronado Bridge story really makes the point.

Personally I prefer the highly visible kind of government wastage. First, it is often, as with this bridge, and as with Concorde, very pretty to look at. Second, it very prettily dramatises how wasteful government spending can be, and I like that even more.

19 comments to Why the Coronado Bridge is long and curved instead of short and straight

  • You forgot the mention whether the “exit” on the other side of the bridge is on the same height. If not, then this design is the only possibility for cars and trucks to manage the height difference.

  • I’d like to see the documentation on that bit about the Feds requiring a longer bridge.

    What is poissibly far more central to the design (and perhaps explains why it is so high) is that very large naval ships must be able to pass under it. San Diego is a very big naval port; and the bridge crosses a channel and would landlock substantial docks were a lower bridge to be taken out in a sneak-attack. At least that’s my understanding; and the geography suggest such a commonsense explanation for such an extraordinary bridge.

  • Andy

    I’m not 100% convinced on the Fed funds thing, since the bridge was almost totally paid for by bonds (that were paid off by tolls). That being said, the bridge is very high so that ships can pass under it (like the ship I was on, CG-54, USS Antietam, a guided missle cruiser), and to obtain the needed height on a straight bridge would be nearly impossible (for cars & trucks to cross over in an orderly/fast fashion) – the grade right now is somewhere around 5%.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    That the reason for this bridge’s on-the-face-of-it absurd size and shape could be that it had to be high enough in the middle to allow big ships under it had not occurred to me, and I concede that this could indeed be the reason for the bridge’s design, rather than merely Federal money chasing. Which would blow my post out of the water, if true, but there you go.

    I have emailed Phil Cohen to ask him if he has any response to this suggestion. With luck, he may join in with a comment.

    Caveat: email is all over the place nowadays, and if he does not reply this could simply be because he didn’t get the email. Also, although I think the email he left on my Culture Blog was real, I can’t be certain.

  • About the Coronado Bridge the California Department of Transportation says

    “The structure uses the world’s longest continuous box girder to conceal the braces, joints, and stiffeners normally visible in other bridges providing a vertical clearance of 200 feet over the shipping channels, and giving the exterior a sleek, smooth appearance. The 90-degree turn mid-span serves to make the bridge long enough to achieve a 4.67 percent grade, allowing the bridge enough height to clear an empty aircraft carrier.” (italics added)

    I suppose that if one is looking for “government wastage” one can start with the Defense Department. But I wouldn’t say that is is a particularly good example. I like the idea of my battleships being able to get out to sea.

  • JakeV

    Credulity is often a good indicator of bias.

  • connelly

    I believe, also, that building the bridge at the narrows would have meant building it on a U.S. submarine base. I doubt that would’ve gone over big.

  • Jonathan Bailey

    My parents used to live in Coronado. My understanding as to design of the bridge is that it had to be that way to ensure that the tallest of the Navy’s ships could get under it on the way to the 32nd Street naval base , just inside the bridge. The carriers are all berthed at North Island Naval Base, just outside the bridge.

    BTW, the bridge was financed with bonds, supported by a toll. The bonds were paid off several years early and the toll was eliminated in one direction, retained in the other, ostensibly to provide ongoing maintenance funds. It couldn’t possibly be government’s reluctance to give up a revenue source once its original justification has gone away. Could it? 🙂

  • I don’t know about that toll, either. I would check it out. I was just over the bridge a few months ago and I don’t think that there was a toll then. Maybe the wicked State reimposed it on the all the downtrodden folks who live on Coronado.

    There is quite enough to criticize in activist government. So when people start making claims which are based on innacurate information, it makes government critics such as ourselves look fatuous.

  • Phil Cohen

    My information about the design of the Coronado Bridge, came from an aging curmudgeon who claims apriori San Diego city government experience in this matter. All whom responded about the Navy’s height requirement are absolutely correct and in early Congressional hearings the Navy voiced strong objections to this bridges concept and planned construction.Their worst case scenario was a bottled up or bottlenecked fleet of military vessels. Clearing the masts of aircraft carriers was a prime design consideration.
    The Coronado landing and approach were originally further inland to allow for acceptable highway grading that would safely accommodate vehicular bridge traffic.
    And as for me, I’m alive and well and living across from Balboa Park and only a short bike ride across our favorite span.
    Phil Cohen, I am.

  • I can imagine a scenario in which the State of California blithely and disingenuously announced a shorter bridge — well knowing of course it’s impossibility. The Feds have jurisdiction over such waterways and the US Coast Guard in the final analysis could/would simply have said when it comes to the shorter, lower, cheaper bridge, “Don’t joke about national security.”

    As a political sop, the Feds may have voluntarily offered to pay the marginal cost to ease the pain…Remember, LBJ was president in the mid-60s and California was not a solid Democratic state — far from it, in fact. Nixon was from California and was organizing to run again. So in some very narrow technical sense the Feds may indeed have said “Spend more” and paid for a longer bridge when a shorter one might have been technically feasible.

    But I don’t think that the shorter one would have been a wise choice or in fact legally possible because of national security reasons. (I am told that the Navy SEALS — which have a base on the Bay — regularly check the bridge; it is a critical element of national security, if you examine the US West Coast and see how few ports we have which can accommodate Naval vessels.)

    I took a boat tour underneath the bridge when I was there last fall and Brian is dead-on correct right, it is truly a cool thing. And we indeed also saw SEALS on some sort of practice.

    Driving over the bridge is also a trip — it is REALLY high.

  • If you are looking for waste in a bridge check out Newport, RI. I beleive the bridge between Jamestown and Aquidneck (sp?) Island was built extremely high to allow an aircraft carrier to move underneath. Unlike in San Diego though I don’t think an aircraft carrier has ever passed beneath the bridge.

    This is all a story I heard on a boat in Newport, but I thought an interesting contrast to the story of the Coronado Bridge.

  • Andy

    This toll is no more. This toll has ceased to be. Yah, they got rid of the toll a couple of years ago, to much fanfare and handwringing. I go to Coronado all the time – I live in San Diego.

  • Brian, Coronado is an island. The Silver Strand is artificial, constructed around 1890 so a trolley line could be extended to a tent city then housing folks waiting to buy houses on the island. Legend has it that the US Navy has the strand mined for demolition in an emergency. The Navy neither confirms or denies the story.

    At the time Coronado was separated from North island (the Navy air station) by a bight on the right as you look north/west, and a saltwater marsh on the left. In the 1940s the two islands were united with fill from dredging operations done to deepen San Diego Bay for the larger Navy ships then coming on line.

    As for the bridge’s curve. Interstate 5 in California was scheduled to be extended though downtown San Diego and on down to the border. The plan was to have the freeway placed along the bayside. But the brand new San Diego Port Authority objected, saying that the placement would interfere with plans to develop the bay as a shipping center. So the highway was moved inland. Which meant a change in bridge/freeway access.

    Then environmentalists got involved, pointing out that the bridge and freeway would harm a nesting site. This also put the kibosh on the Port Authority’s plans to develop the area. The bridge people needed a spot that was already developed, but which had cheap land, and close enough to the planned freeway to ‘shorten’ access routes.

    So bridge and freeway people got together, located a good spot to link the two structures together, altered their plans to make the joining easier (which also served to satisfy the feds on the bridge design), and the projects were on.

    Except for the Latinos living and doing business in the development zone, who really weren’t that enthused about being uprooted and displaced. After protests and threats of sabotage a deal was worked out whereby the displaced would get assistance with relocation, and a park (Chicano Park) would be established at the base of the San Diego approach to the bridge.

    Now you have more of the story.

  • Jonathan Bailey

    David Sucher,

    I should have mentioned, if you do the nice, PC car pooling, i.e., there is more than one person in the car, there is no toll in either direction. If you have the temerity to cross alone, you will pay up……….

  • Jonathan Bailey

    screwed up email in prior post. Transposed letters. I plead dyslexia.

  • Cornadian 2005

    The bridge is also long and tall so that an Aircraft carrier can fit under it (very important might I add). Also the toll the bridge used to pay drivers paid back the government and the construction loans.

  • Joe T

    Having recently been to the Coronado Bridge I thought I would try to clear up a couple points. First, the land height at the bridge’s two ends are roughly the same. Second, the bridge is not high enough to allow the largest Navy ships to pass under it. (The Nimitz class aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and USS Reagan can’t get under). Third, the three center sections of the bridge are hollow and float (they have been tested) so that in the event of an enemy attack they would not block the harbor.

    Now here is the story that I got from a retired career Navy man who was stationed in San Diego and now pilots harbor tours for fun. He told me that the bridge is 2.12 miles long because Regan (when he was governor) made the call to get the federal government to pay for 90% of the cost. He was VERY proud of Reagan for this action.

  • A H Badsha

    ” The main cauge for putting a curve in a long bridge is to resist lateral force by the traffic more actively as like the thin cloride wall of a white egg.