State highway officials are nervously bracing for more bad bridge
news -- about a half-billion dollars' worth.
At issue: skyrocketing
steel costs and other expenses that may drive the cost of the new
Bay Bridge eastern span right through the roof, and then some.
The $3 billion Oakland-to-Treasure
Island span is already $347 million over budget, and bids on the
final piece -- an anchored suspension section, the bridge's marquee
-- have yet to be opened.
And therein lies the
That section originally
was budgeted for $786 million, but transportation officials are
quietly predicting the final total will be dramatically higher.
including at Caltrans, cite three reasons:
-- Steel prices are soaring
-- 25 percent in the past six months alone.
-- Fewer companies are
competing for big jobs.
-- And the Bay Bridge
job is going to be physically challenging, particularly
given the complex design.
"My hunch is it's
going to be a half-billion over -- easily,'' said one Bay Area bridge
engineer, whose estimate was backed by other transit experts following
Officials with the state
Department of Transportation, while not anxious to talk until the
bids are turned in and opened next week, already are scrambling
to figure out how to pay for any cost spike.
"I'm not going to
speculate on the (bid) number, but it is a possibility it will come
in high," said Dan McElhinney, Caltrans' chief deputy director
of the Oakland district office.
To make matters worse,
Caltrans already has run through most of the $450 million that the
state Legislature set aside for just such overruns when it approved
more than $5 billion to retrofit or rebuild five Bay Area and two
Southern California bridges to make them more earthquake-safe.
The first half of the
Bay Bridge span -- from the eastern shore to the new suspension
section -- already has shot some $312 million over early estimates.
As things stand, Caltrans
officials say only two teams -- and perhaps a third -- seem ready
to bid on the remaining project.
And less competition
generally means higher prices.
"Frankly, the timing
is not great for a big, complex job, and there are not a lot of
people to build these things,'' said our bridge engineering expert.
That's because the World
Trade Center attacks and ensuing stock market collapse have helped
drive up insurance costs for builders and made it more difficult
for them to get construction bonding.
The bottom-line question,
of course, is: Who will pay for any added costs?
McElhinney said Caltrans
is looking at creative ways to reduce bond costs and keep the spending
in check. But that may not be enough.
"It could be a classic
case of the Bay Area versus the rest of the state -- and the rest
of the state is going to say, 'Go fly a kite,' '' said one transit
official, who asked not to be named.
The Bay Area's motoring
public may not be prepared to shoulder more costs, either.
Thanks to a $1 toll hike
in the late 1980s, drivers already have sunk $2 billion of their
own into reconstructing Bay Area bridges.
And a second $1 toll
hike, Regional Measure 2 -- which kicks in July 1 -- was sold on
the promise that the money would go for strengthening BART's Transbay
Tube, building a new Transbay Terminal and scores of others rail,
ferry and bus projects.
So what to do?
"I guess we'll cross
that bridge when we come to it,'' said Caltrans spokesman Mark DeSio.