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Bay Bridge bill reaches new heights

May 27, 2004 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege and Alec Rosenberg, Staff Writers

Estimate for eastern span's tower rises $1 billion; Caltrans will spend 60 days analyzing bid

The repair bill on the Bay Bridge climbed from $3 billion to $4 billion with the opening of two brown boxes Wednes-day.

Caltrans opened a lone bid Wednesday to build the sleek signature tower of the eastern span of the bridge for $1.8 billion -- $1 billion more than the latest official estimate.

The overrun on this, the final contract on the replacement bridge, would be enough to line all five lanes of the bridge with luxury Hummers from San Francisco to Oakland, fill each with gas and have tens of millions of dollars to spare. It surpassed the worst-case estimate in a betting pool of transportation and bridge experts by $430 million.

As Caltrans coolly announced the result before the overflowing basement room in the agency's Sacramento headquarters, the news was greeted with gasps and low whistles of astonishment.

As word quickly spread, similar reactions rippled through the state Capitol across the street and back to the Bay Area.

It remains unclear how the state can afford to finish its top priority project, the biggest in Caltrans history. That's because the state highway account is all but tapped out, and Caltrans has but $122 million remaining in a rainy-day fund for bridge work.

"It's obviously a serious situation," said Assemblyman John Dutra, D-Fremont, who was key in brokering a 2001 deal to bail out Caltrans after huge overruns in its bridge-building program then.

"This is vital to the Bay Area and, consequently, vital to the economy of California," Dutra added. "I don't know what the solution is going to be. We have to find one."

The state's most powerful lawmaker was also stumped.

"That's amazing. Tell Caltrans to go to hell," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco. "What are we going to do? You tell me. How about $25 bridge tolls?"

Back at Caltrans headquarters, top state transportation officials wanted to keep their options open, saying only that they plan to spend the full 60 days analy-

zing the bid, which was tendered by a joint venture involving American Bridge, Nippon Steel Bridge and Fluor Enterprise.

Caltrans cited skyrocketing steel prices, shifting financial markets and a shortage of steel and concrete as the reason contractors pegged the price at more than double the state's $740 million figure.

Caltrans could accept or reject the American Bridge team's offer. Last August, the state agency rejected a sole bid to build the tower's foundations when the price came back 60 percent over estimates. The decision resulted in a competitive bid that came in $33 million lower.

Dan McElhinney, who runs Caltrans' bridge program, said the agency historically has rejected sole bids on its largest contracts and noted that costs on Wed-

nesday's proposal seemed "high," even considering the inflated steel market.

American Bridge and its partners offered a Plan B proposal to use foreign steel, but the $1.4 billion estimate was not cheap enough to be accepted. Caltrans required that the contract cost

25 percent less than a contract using U.S. steel, in keeping with a Davis administration policy to "Buy America" for the new Bay Bridge.

The cost of steel is key. The bridge tower would use enough steel to build 10 Eiffel Towers.

But rejecting bids comes with two costs -- the gamble that a future submittal may cost more and the cost of time. Seismic experts predict a two-thirds chance that a major earthquake will strike the region in the next 20 years. Engineers say the Bay Bridge, which carries 282,000 cars every day, cannot withstand such a temblor. The new span is designed to be open to emergency traffic within minutes of a quake so violent it occurs every 1,000 years, on average.

"This bridge is important to the economy throughout the state," acting Caltrans Director Tony Harris said. "It will need to be replaced."

If Caltrans swallows hard and accepts Wednesday's bid, action shifts back across the street, where a bitter fight over dollars is almost certain to consume the Legislature, as it did until midnight on the last day of the session three years ago.

Two unpopular options exist: raising Bay Area bridge tolls for the second time in a year or freezing highway projects up and down the state for years to come. That debate, in 2001, led to screaming matches.

Getting the bid was supposed to be the easy part, but it has taken 15 years from the day a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake to the day the Caltrans opened proposals to fix it. In that time, California has gone through four governors and four Caltrans directors.

Caltrans first advertised the project

15 months ago, making it possibly the project with longest gestation in Caltrans history.

Repairing the bridge began as a $250 million retrofit job. Wednesday's estimate on the project known to Caltrans engineers as "The Pointy Thing" marks a

16-fold increase, putting the Bay Bridge on par with Boston's notorious Big Dig.

Traffic would flow over a new self-anchored suspension structure in 2010. As recently as last August, then Caltrans chief Jeff Morales promised the new bridge would open in 2007 and his agency wouldn't need any more money from state lawmakers.

Meanwhile, work continues on other parts of the new bridge, such as the skyway, where contractors batter

160 steel piles in the Bay and construct 28 piers in the water. Motorists can see the line of tall cranes where work on the $1.05 billion contract progresses.

Next month, contractors plan to float the first of 452 prefabricated concrete deck sections on barges down the San Joaquin River from their assembly line in Stockton to an Oakland dock. Some weigh 800 tons, and enough concrete is going into the skyway to bury 70 football fields under a slab one yard thick.


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