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