Mary King – Grand Award – Oct 22, 2014 – MTC Awards Presentation

Grand Award: – Mary King Steered Design Process for New Bay Bridge East Span Toward a Winning Outcome

Mary King steered the Bay Bridge East Span design process through choppy waters while she was an MTC commissioner and Alameda County supervisor, in the end building consensus on an iconic design. (Photo: Noah Berger)

Mary King examines a model of the proposed new Bay Bridge East Span design at a 1998 meeting.

The many bicyclists and walkers enjoying the new East Span can thank Mary King for her support for a pathway alongside the car decks.

By the time Mary King arrived at the initial Bay Bridge Design Task Force meeting in 1997, she had already been appointed chair. King, at the time an MTC commissioner representing Alameda County, was a natural choice for then MTC Executive Director Lawrence D. Dahms. Her poise under pressure, her genuine interest in fair decision-making and her command of others’ attention made her the crucial leader of a challenging process to define a signature design for the new East Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. And the same impressive characteristics made her the obvious choice for MTC’s Grand Award.

King already had an extensive political resume. She had been chief of staff to both state legislator Bill Lockyer and Oakland Mayor Lionel J. Wilson. In 1988 she became the first African-American woman to serve as an Alameda County supervisor, and was re-elected twice. In that role she worked tirelessly to expand social services and opportunities for economically disadvantaged residents. King felt that a resource and monument as public as the new East Span demanded public participation. From the beginning, she resolved to fairly consider all opinions.

“I was going to listen to the public input and then I was going to try to get the members of the committee to reach some kind of consensus,” she said.

Immediately, this proved to be no easy task. Not only were there major design disagreements among the engineers, the politicians and the public, but there also was heavy debate within the various factions. But King maintained an extraordinary command of the process.

She dodged “so many curveballs” from various competing interests, said Steve Heminger, the current MTC executive director.

For Heminger it was a treat to work with King and to watch her handle the maddening clash of interests. “Mary’s job managing the Bay Bridge Task Force was sort of like being ring-master of a three-ring circus,” Heminger said. “Mary was a really gifted public official. She is really smart, very funny and incredibly quick on her feet.”

In spite of the challenges, King emerged from her role on the Task Force even more optimistic about the ability of the government to give the public what it desires.

The bicycle/pedestrian path on the new East Span is a testament to the power of the public and the responsiveness of the committee. At the first Task Force meeting, everyone laughed at the group helmed by Alex Zuckermann, the late bike activist to whom the path is dedicated.

It was “David against Goliath,” King explained. “They didn’t have the big bucks, but they had the big heart. They never went away, and they got a bike lane on the bridge.”

Now standing proudly above the Bay, the sparkling white self-anchored suspension span carries motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike across the eastern side of the Bay. Its elegant design has made it an immediate icon, and King “deserves a lion’s share of the credit for that,” Heminger said.

King moved on to other prominent positions: president of the Association of Bay Area Governments, private consultant and various roles at AC Transit for eight years, including interim general manager. But the bridge sticks out as a crowning achievement of a full career.

“Every time I see the bridge, I’m very proud, I’m very touched, I’m very happy that I was able to be a part of it,” she said.

— Natalie Orenstein

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