When it comes to naming roads, bridges and tunnels after distinguished citizens, all's fair in love, politics and vital signs.
"It used to be that a politician had to be retired (to be honored)," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who in 2007 proposed the second span of the Benicia Bridge be named after Rep. George Miller. "Now you're supposed to be dead. I explained it to (Miller), that the rules say you have to be deceased. I said, 'Now George, I've always wanted to follow you into Congress. I think we're looking at a win-win here.'"
Happily, DeSaulnier was able to convince his fellow legislators that Miller deserved the honor while he was still around to enjoy it. But the process spotlights the risk-reward dynamic inherent to naming transportation infrastructure for people.
The reward is obvious. Miller is tickled, especially because the original span of the Benicia Bridge was named for his father, longtime state Sen. George Miller Jr. That honor was posthumous, bestowed in 1975.
"My father never got to see me drive across his bridge," Miller said. "My grandkids were there for my ceremony. That was really fun. The youngest one, whenever we go over it, will say something about Papa's bridge."
Some of the risk is borne by the honorees. Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz and Thomas Caldecott had their names affixed to what were, at the time, transformational transportation projects. Decades later, gridlocked commuters tend to forget the men as they blaspheme the names associated with the maze, the freeway and the tunnel for being traffic nightmares.
That's something former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown might want to prepare for. On Thursday, Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, introduced a resolution to name the western span of the Bay Bridge after Brown.
These days, the California Legislature is responsible for approving names for state-operated infrastructure. A resolution can be proposed by a member of either the Assembly or the state Senate. The resolution must clear that house's transportation committee and be passed by vote, then go through the same process in the other house.
It wasn't always that way. MacArthur, the celebrated Army general, was retreating from the Bataan Peninsula to Australia in March 1942 when the Oakland City Council honored him by naming the Moss Avenue approach to the Bay Bridge in his honor. Eventually, his name also was given the adjacent freeway, Interstate 580, and the cement tangle now known as the MacArthur Maze.
State legislators made the call in 1958 when it came time to honor another World War II hero, Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz. Nimitz cut the ribbon on the $50 million Interstate 880 freeway project, which included the first double-deck structure ever completed in California. Standing atop what would become known as the ill-fated Cypress Structure, Nimitz expressed the hope that "this great freeway will be not only an avenue ... but will also be a 'safeway' helping to cut down on the tremendous loss of life on our highways."
Caldecott was the mayor of Berkeley, an Alameda County supervisor and president of Joint Highway District 13, which built the first two bores of the tunnel. Ten thousand cars queued up to pass through the engineering marvel when it opened Dec. 5, 1937. Originally known as the Broadway Tunnel, it was renamed for Caldecott in 1960, nine years after his death. As with other named infrastructure, the new handle took awhile to become part of the regional lexicon.
"Think the new name will catch on?" wrote Oakland Tribune columnist George Ross. "I know people who still call MacArthur Blvd. 'Excelsior.'"
Sometimes the risk is to those who bestow the honor. After Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire broke the single-season home run record in 1998, a stretch of Interstate 70 in St. Louis was named in his honor. Years later, McGwire admitted he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his celebrated season. That stretch of freeway is now named for Mark Twain.
"The current generation remembers that, gee, the Caldecott is nothing but a bottleneck. With my bridge," he said, chuckling, "there was this bottleneck, and then it went away. It was like I did that."
The impact of other honorees is not as obvious. Retired Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir raised funds for the signage when a stretch of Interstate 680 was named for former state Sen. Daniel Boatwright.
"He sought the money to get 680 improvements," Weir said. "When it began to deteriorate, he got the funds to have it laser-etched to get the road smoothed out. You go after what you want and you deliver for your district. He had that attitude in spades."
So did San Jose City Councilman Joe Colla, who was moved to action when budget cuts halted the construction of the 680/280/101 interchange in the mid-1970s, leaving a 200-foot section of disembodied roadway looming incongruously over the landscape. Colla arranged for a crane to hoist a car atop the roadway, joined it there via helicopter, and had his picture taken with arms spread wide as if to say, "What now?"
He followed that stunt with a 300-car caravan to Sacramento to ask for funding to complete the project. He got it. Colla died in 1995, and the interchange was named in his honor in 2010. It would be difficult to find a more appropriately named piece of infrastructure.
The same could be said for the overpasses honoring law enforcement officials who died in the line of duty. DeSaulnier said there are discussions about naming an overpass on I-680 for CHP officer Kenyon Youngstrom, who was gunned down by a motorist in September.
Highway 85 in Santa Clara County won't lead you directly to San Jose's airport, but both are fittingly named for Norman Mineta (the airport by a vote of the San Jose City Council), former San Jose councilman and mayor, congressman, U.S. secretary of commerce and U.S. secretary of transportation.
But the name-association game is a funny thing.
"We refer to the Nimitz and the Grove-Shafter (freeways) by name," Weir said, "but no one's going to talk about the Boatwright or the Don Doyle. If I'm crossing the (former state Sen. John) Nejedly Bridge, that sticks for me. So does the (Al) Zampa Bridge" (named after an ironworker who worked on several Bay Area spans).
As one of the few living honorees, Miller said he feels a responsibility to live up to his status.
"In a funny way, you do," he said. "You don't want people driving on your bridge and going, 'Hey, that SOB.' That's why they wanted you to be dead, because then they knew you wouldn't become a criminal and run away with the state treasury."
Miller joked that he might repay DeSaulnier by having his name placed on the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. DeSaulnier has his own plan for that.
"(Former California Transportation commissioners) Jeremiah Hallisey and James Kellogg were instrumental in getting the money for the project," he said. "I joked about naming one end of the tunnel for one of them, and the other end after the other because, 'you're the biggest bores I know.'"
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.