Cost of a 'freeway on stilts'? $1.1 billion. Cost of a world-class
view from Oakland? Priceless, nearly.
learned this week that the replacement Bay Bridge could cost them
as much as $4 billion, $3 billion more than the simple, utilitarian
skyway first proposed by Caltrans in 1997.
But the extra money does
nothing to add capacity on the bridge, nor make it stronger against
The tower was added by
a hand-picked committee of Bay Area engineers, then politicians,
to give East Bay residents a landmark.
The decision to build
the unique, elegant, self-anchored suspension tower rather than
a simple concrete span was taken out of Caltrans' hands in 1997.
Jerry Brown, then considering a run for Oakland mayor, called Caltrans'
design "a freeway on stilts."
The die was cast. Residents in Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and
San Francisco overwhelmingly supported scrap-ping Caltrans' bridge
for something sleeker that would have bike lanes and possibly trains.
The public got only the
bike lanes, and seven years later they could face $4 tolls or see
transportation projects frozen for years.
That's because a lone
bid to build the tower, when unsealed Wednesday, pegged the cost
of the remaining bridge contract at $1.8 billion, far above Caltrans'
official $740 million estimate. The state agency is reviewing bids,
and there is a chance that a cheaper, $1.4 billion proposal -- using
foreign, not U.S. steel -- could be accepted. "Buy America"
rules are complex and a number of technical nuances could yet invalidate
the cheaper plan.
But with either option,
no transportation official or lawmaker in Sacramento or the Bay
Area knew Thursday how to scrape up the money to pay for it. There
was plenty of frustration and rethinking to go around.
"I remember when
everybody looked at this like a big design video. Those who were
designing the new bridge had no responsibility for paying for it,"
said Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland. "It ended up being all about
aesthetics, not the functionality.
"That includes everybody
at the time," Perata said, including Brown.
The new design was codified
in state law and set in motion a chain of politically motivated
delays and political deals that sent costs soaring.
Former Gov. Gray Davis
broke one logjam -- foot-dragging by former San Francisco Mayor
Willie Brown and the U.S. Navy -- only to create another. Davis
decided to use federal money to cover overruns. It brought $240
million for the new Bay Bridge, but the attached tether of requiring
American steel had bridge builders balking, prompting months of
Wednesday's bid, proffered
by a joint venture of American Bridge, Nippon Steel and Fluor Enterprises,
attached a $400 million cost to that decision, which has also played
out in previous cost spikes on other parts of the work, now rising
out of the water.
Davis declined comment,
and Jerry Brown was traveling and unavailable for comment Thursday.
Bay Area and state lawmakers
"I hope it reopens
the entire project for consideration," said Sen. Tom McClintock,
R-Thousand Oaks. "Bridges aren't supposed to be works of art.
They are bridges."
McClintock placed the
blame for miscalculating costs squarely in Caltrans' lap: "Caltrans
over the last 20 years has proven itself to be a chronically incompetent
Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey shared a dim view of the state
agency's work, but reached a different conclusion.
"Caltrans has not
been doing a good job designing and estimating costs on all these
bridge projects. There were many indicators along the way there
were problems with these estimates," said Kinsey, a Marin County
The same day the final
Bay Bridge bid was unsealed, MTC was grilling Caltrans about construction
overruns on a new Benicia Bridge. Unforeseen construction problems
spiked the cost to $1.05 billion, quadrupling the original estimate.
But Kinsey didn't second-guess
the decision to replace the "freeway on stilts" with the
more elegant tower, nicknamed "the Pointy Thing."
"Many people in
the East Bay wanted to have something to be proud of. I don't live
there, so I wouldn't tell people what they should have," Kinsey
said, adding, "We will get through this. There will be a Bay
MTC said it thinks it
can refinance bridge tolls to generate $500 million for overruns,
he and others said.
Caltrans stands by MTC's
design, even though it took key decisions out of state hands, which
contractors used to their advantage.
"I think there's
something to be said for public participation. In 1997, I don't
think anybody could have estimated just how big the cost would be,"
said Dan McElhinney, who is in charge of the toll-bridge repair
"Those cost estimates
were scrutinized infinite times by Southern California legislators
and scrutinized by the California Transportation Commission,"
said Quentin Kopp, who was chairman of the Senate Transportation
Committee at the time and wrote the bill codifying the tower design.
He said Attorney General
Bill Lockyer, then senate president, was the driving force behind
the new bridge, not Jerry Brown.
Negotiating payment for
the bridge program, Kopp said, was "one of the three most painstaking
bills in my 11 years as committee chair."
The 2001 deal to cover
the overruns -- a doubling of cost -- was described by all participants
as one of the most grueling experiences in their legislative careers.
A third such negotiation is now likely in the Capitol, insiders
Perata said he wants
to hear Caltrans' ideas for a possible "Twin Towers" bridge,
floated secretly last month. McElhinney said the time needed to
redo environmental, engineering and design work, and to get a new
law and estimate, make that unlikely.
One observer said the
Legislature should turn to Perata's $3 bridge-toll plan, which takes
effect in July, spending millions on transit systems.
"What's the choice?
It's tolls. The Legislature should eliminate everything out of that
$3 toll, all that crap that Perata loaded us up with. If you want
fiscal discipline, put that money into this bridge."