SACRAMENTO - Bridge tolls could rise to $5 over the next three to four years under a plan proposed Monday by the governor's office to cover skyrocketing construction costs of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge and the seismic retrofit of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan doesn't mention raising tolls, but with no state money in the new deal, Bay Area lawmakers said a new toll hike would provide the only solution.
Under the proposal, Bay Area voters would be asked in November to redirect money from the $1 toll hike that took effect July 1. Instead of spending the money -- estimated at $125 million a year -- on a previously approved list of transit services and roadway fixes, the money would only go toward paying off a $2.5 billion overrun on the Bay Bridge and a $250 million overrun on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.
But that still doesn't provide enough money to make up for the cost overruns, according to Bay Area representatives who were immediately critical of the proposal.
"Caltrans has made all the errors and miscalculations from day one and now they want the Bay Area to pay for it -- why would we do that?" said state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland. "This idea is a nonstarter."
With no new state money in the proposal, Perata asserted that tolls would need to be raised to $5, if the plan moves forward.
"This is outrageous to say the least," said state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. The bridge is part of the statewide highway system, so the state should pay for it, he said.
Torlakson and Perata noted that Bay Area voters in March approved Regional Measure 2, which raised tolls to $3 for a laundry list of highway fixes, including a fourth bore through the Caldecott Tunnel and transit services such as strengthening BART's Transbay Tube and adding ferry service.
"The Bay Area should be commended for this, not punished and have the money stolen," Torlakson said.
But the governor's office said cost overruns on the Bay Bridge arose because Bay Area politicians wanted a fancier, "signature" span.
"If they want a signature bridge, they're going to have to pay for it," said Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger.
The governor's plan offers a three-pronged approach to tackle massive overruns on a statewide seismic retrofit plan meant to fix six bridges and build a new eastern span on the Bay Bridge.
The first part of the new plan calls for an audit to determine why the Bay Bridge is taking so long to plan and build. After all, it's been almost 15 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake brought down one chunk of the existing eastern span.
By comparison, Stutzman said, the Great Wall of China was built in 10 years, and a man was sent to the moon after about eight years of planning.
"Yet the Bay Area continues not to be able to build itself a new bridge," Stutzman said.
The second prong calls on Bay Area voters to redirect the recent toll hike in the upcoming November election. The third prong places oversight in the hands of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Stutzman said the original concept for the new Bay Bridge, approved in 1997, had a simpler design and a lower cost of $1.1 billion.
He said the new designs -- with a steel-laden suspension span -- led to the $2.6 billion revised estimate in 2001, when new funding was approved by the Legislature.
Now, with higher steel prices plus increased bonding and insurance costs following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the cost has risen to $5.1 billion, said Sunne Wright McPeak, the secretary of Housing, Business and Transportation.
Steel industry officials have disputed claims that higher costs are due largely to rising steel prices.
If the governor's plan goes forward, work on the suspension plan would be delayed for at least one more year, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. That's because the state has no money left for the project, but voters won't be asked until November to redirect the recent toll hike to the bridge work. Caltrans has already asked for an extension until the end of September to figure out a way to pay for it.
Any such delay would put the bridge construction firm in limbo as well.
"We want what all the Bay Area residents want -- a state-of-the-art, seismically safe, cost-effective Bay Bridge," said Lee Tashjian, vice president of Fluor Corp. The corporation is part of a consortium that bid on the suspension span portion of the bridge.
Perata said the governor's plan likely won't win quick approval from the Legislature, which adjourns for the year next week. A stopgap solution such as refinancing bonds could be found to keep construction moving, but a bigger solution will likely not come until the Legislature returns in January, he said.
In the meantime, regional transportation officials are angered over the governor's approach to the funding problem.
Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the financing plan worked out in 2001 calls for an even split of the funding between the Bay Area and the state. The governor's plan doesn't live up to that bargain, he said.
"It's an unbelievably irresponsible proposal," Kinsey said. "You're asking voters to either fix BART seismic problems or bridge seismic problems. What a cynical disregard for safety."
The cost overruns have been known for months, though not publicly stated until Monday. In that time, MTC drafted a plan that would have had the Bay Area kick in 57 percent of the costs, which meant a toll hike to $4 in 2009. The state would have chipped in the rest.
Commission officials didn't learn until Monday, however, that the governor planned to make the Bay Area pay for the overruns on the bridges.
"It wasn't even on the radar screen as an idea," Kinsey said. "This is such a bombshell."
The proposal was met with more enthusiasm from Southern California legislators.
"We will do what we can to work together," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Carson. "But Bay Area officials may have to come up with a way to cover the costs and perhaps find ways to make it less expensive. Aesthetics are important, but there may be elements in the plan that need to be reconsidered."
Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or at [email protected].