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Clock ticks on funds for Bay Bridge

August 5, 2004 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Mike Adamick


With a $2.5 billion overrun on the new span and only about $140 million left in the bank, the Bay Bridge project is in danger of running out of money before a solution to the funding gap is found.

Caltrans was expected to brief the California Transportation Commission today on the span --now estimated to cost $5.1 billion, according to a draft Caltrans budget document -- but agency spokesman David Anderson said Wednesday the status report has been postponed until next month.

That has put the link between Oakland and San Francisco in legislative limbo.

Legislators are waiting for Caltrans to ask for help and several expressed frustration that information about the cost overruns has not come faster because time to find a solution is running out.

Even if Caltrans asks for more money this week, lawmakers would have just three weeks to craft a rescue plan because the Legislature adjourns Aug. 27 and has no plans to return for general business until January.

"As soon as they know, they ought to come running and inform the Legislature about the extent of the situation and what they propose," said Steve Schnaidt, staff director of the Senate Transportation Commission.

That hasn't happened and Caltrans says it is still crunching the numbers.

"Right now, we are reviewing the funding needs for the overall toll bridge seismic retrofit program, and we don't have any final numbers at this time," said Anderson, the Caltrans spokesman. "If we need to, we'll notify the state Legislature."

Lawmakers said they want to find a solution before the project runs out of money, potentially bringing work to a halt even as the new span begins to stretch across the Bay.

When cost overruns were announced on the Bay Bridge in April 2001, it took lawmakers six months to craft a bill to pay for the $2 billion deficiency -- but only after Caltrans promised never to return for more.

Three years later and an additional $2.5 billion over budget on the latest bridge designs, Caltrans hasn't officially returned to lawmakers ... yet. Legislators expected a report earlier this week, but most have not been notified of the situation.

The tight timeline is not the only worry.

In addition to the $2.5 billion cost overrun on the Bay Bridge, the draft report also shows a $250 million overrun on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and an overall Bay Area bridge retrofit program that has jumped to $8.3 billion from $5 billion.

To complicate matters, state transportation coffers are bleaker than expected - thanks to a series of funding shifts and state and federal issues that have left billions of dollars for projects like the bridge in limbo.

In the last five years, more than $5 billion has been shifted from transportation coffers to the state's general fund to balance the budget. Some of that money is to be replaced by revenues from American Indian gaming. But two gaming initiatives on the November ballot could void those payments.

The California Transportation Commission is scheduled to hear a report today outlining exactly how deep the hole has become over the past few months and whether the state will have the money to finish its road projects next year.

At the federal level, a dispute over how ethanol, a gasoline additive, is taxed has not been resolved, leaving $700 million in annual funding for California roads up in the air, according to the commission.

Meanwhile, legislators are grappling for more information while debating how to pay for the expected overruns.

Some lawmakers say the only solution is to raise tolls yet again, while others say the state should foot the bill. "It's pretty obvious the shortfall is going to have to be covered through additional tolls -- there's no transportation money to throw at the problem," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Carson, chairwoman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "The people who use the bridge are going to have to pay for it."

Southern California lawmakers see the problem as a regional issue, which should be solved by Bay Area residents paying higher tolls.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, said Caltrans needs to start over and use tolls to build new bridges.

"I think the project needs to be reconsidered from scratch," said McClintock, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. "If the political will exists, the Legislature can turn a bill on a dime, but whether we can turn it on $5 billion is another matter."

Northern California legislators want to use state money, arguing the bridge is part of the state highway system. Besides, they say, a toll hike to $4 might prove politically untenable, considering tolls just rose to $3 on July 1.

Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or at [email protected].


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