Faced with multibillion-dollar cost overruns on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge east span project, the Schwarzenegger administration on Monday blamed Bay Area officials and said the Bay Area must find the money itself to finish the project.
The surprise announcement throws the seismic retrofit project – just one-third done – into limbo and appears to jeopardize a planned 2011 finishing date.
Foundations have been poured for the multibillion- dollar east span and roadway sections are being shipped to the East Bay. However, without a new source of funds, officials cannot construct the major piece of the 2.2-mile bridge – a suspension section held aloft by asymmetrical cables from a showcase 525-foot needle tower.
That tower, an architectural add-on approved by Bay Area officials, is at the heart of the political financing fight.
Officials originally thought it would cost about $750 million. In May, however, the only bidding company said it couldn't build the tower section for less than $1.4 billion. To do it with American steel would cost even more, $1.8 billion.
Administration officials pointed out the initial agreement was for the state to pay for a "functional" bridge, not for the elegant tower and suspension system desired by Bay Area officials.
"We are holding the Bay Area accountable for decisions it has made over the years," Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said at a Monday press conference. "The Bay Area is going to have to pay for it themselves."
The project, budgeted in 2001 at $2.6 billion, now has doubled to $5.1 billion, officials said.
Stutzman and transportation chief Sunne Wright McPeak said the administration isn't leaving Bay Area officials hanging on the project, however.
They said they hope to get the Legislature to pass a bill authorizing a ballot measure this November for voters in seven Bay Area counties to decide if they want the recent $1 Bay bridges toll increase to go to this project.
Bay Area voters this year agreed to increase tolls on most Bay Area bridges from $2 to $3 to pay for a variety of regional transportation improvements.
"We are giving the Bay Area the chance to complete this" project, McPeak said.
McPeak suggested the state would help clear the way if Bay Area officials want to increase bridge tolls to $4.
Capitol transportation officials said the announcement came as a surprise Monday to people outside of the administration. Assembly Transportation chair Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, and others said they had to demand a hasty briefing of their own from the governor's administration.
Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, assailed the administration's stance, pointing out the plans were made without consulting Bay Area officials.
He vowed that the administration's anticipated legislation to divert a dollar of the $3 bridge toll "will not pass." He also disputed the administration's contention that Bay Area residents alone should pay for the cost overruns.
"The governor's office is full of baloney on that," he said. "The Bay Bridge is an interstate and a state highway. If it falls down, I don't know how people from L.A. get to Sacramento."
Administration officials counter that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't believe the rest of the state should be asked to sacrifice any of their local transportation funds to help finish the bridge when transportation budgets already are so thin.
Oropeza suggested that Bay Area officials could consider designing a less costly suspension section and tower.
"Not that I want an ugly bridge, but some esthetic elements may need to be dropped in the interest of keeping the toll as low as possible," she said.
The Senate Transportation Committee chairman, Los Angeles Democrat Kevin Murray, said he would be willing to author a bill with key elements of the governor's proposal.
"The only bill that will pass would have to be agreed upon by many parties," he said. "We will use the governor's proposal as a significant starting point."
Murray said the rest of the state has helped pay for budget increases on the bridge project in the past, but this time, "people in Southern California, the Central Valley and Sacramento are not going to want to foot this bill."
Senate Transportation Committee staff director Steve Schnaidt said it is unlikely the governor's proposals will stop the bridge project mid-span.
"We are replacing an old, outdated bridge," he said. "There are (seismic) safety issues. It would be unreasonable to assume the project would be halted." The project was conceived in the 1990s as a seismic retrofit effort after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake slightly damaged the east span of the bridge.
The administration also on Monday announced an audit of the state's seismic retrofit program involving seven toll bridges in California – with the focus on the Bay Bridge – to see what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future.
The Bee's Tony Bizjak can be reached at (916) 321-1059 or [email protected].