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"Freeway on stilts' begets costly span

May 28, 2004 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege, Staff Writer

Cost of a 'freeway on stilts'? $1.1 billion. Cost of a world-class view from Oakland? Priceless, nearly.

Californians 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 massive earthquakes.

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 costly delays.

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 fumed.

"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 agency."

Metropolitan Transportation 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 supervisor.

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 Bridge."

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 program.

"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 expect.

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."


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