Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - Bay Area voters may decide in November whether to reverse course on the toll increase that took effect last month and spend it on massive bridge construction overruns rather than dozens of transit projects.
That's if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his way, and, according to Bay Area politicians, that's a big if.
On Monday, the Schwarzenegger team unveiled a three-part plan for tackling the Bay Bridge fiasco, which has seen the cost of a new eastern span zoom from $1.2 billion in 1997 to $5.1 billion and counting. State officials now say the bridge will not be ready until 2011, three months after holding firm to a 2009 opening date. For years Caltrans insisted cars would cross the span in 2007.
Overall, the cost of seismically strengthening or replacing all California toll bridges has climbed from $2.6 billion to $8.3 billion in three years. State officials called it another inherited problem.
The state has just two weeks to find up to $3.3 billion. Without it, California cannot pay for the remaining Bay Bridge contract, a $1.4 billion bid to build the elegant tower portion of the new eastern span.
Schwarzenegger's team proposed an audit to find answers and passage of legislation in the remaining two weeks of the session. That bill would put the question to Bay Area voters whether to spend the third dollar -- the recent toll hike -- on the retrofit plan. The bill also would give the Metropolitan Transportation Commission power to set tolls in the future.
It got a chilly reception Monday from lawmakers in both parties who said it raised more questions than it answered. The plan and the reaction to it put into serious doubt whether a political solu- tion exists or whether Bay Area commuters will be stuck with a $1.05 billion fishing pier instead of a landmark bridge.
"It's absurd. It won't see the light of day," said Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland. "This proposal says the Bay Area should subsidize the state transportation system. We're not going to do that."
Perata pushed passage of March's Regional Measure 2, which raised tolls from $2 to $3 and paid for everything from ferry boats and historic streetcars to seismic repair of BART's Transbay Tube. Perata said he plans to introduce a different proposal within a day.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Thousand Oaks Republican Tom McClintock agreed that the bridge is a state responsibility. He suggest ed going back to the drawing board, redesigning the bridge and paying for it with tolls by those who use it.
"You don't start a project unless you have the money to finish it. That's foolish," McClintock said. "The legislators that voted for this boondoggle are responsible."
State officials said Monday the Bay Area is responsible for abandoning a simple Caltrans design in 1998. The elaborate tower proposal accounts for 53 percent of the overrun, said Sunne McPeak, who is secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing. Schwarzenegger officials blamed "Bay Area politics" -- and the mayors Brown.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown called the original Caltrans plan "a freeway on stilts," adding momentum to the campaign for the single tower bridge and MTC's process to design it. Brown did not return calls Monday.
But MTC came to locals' defense.
"The Bay Area has paid for that decision now twice," said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler. "Now they want us to pay for it a third time and to pay for all the other cost increases we had nothing to do with."
Specifically, Caltrans has identified needing an extra $249 million on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and $577 million for the skyway portion of the Bay Bridge, now well under construction. Both projects are ahead of schedule and have experienced no reported major hitches.
Indeed, half the overruns come from Caltrans overhead, contingency and estimating errors.
With no legislative agreement and questions about whether voters will even go with the governor's ideas, it remains unclear whether the tower can be built. Caltrans has until late September, one month before the election, to award the bid.
Every day of delay costs the bidder, a consortium of American Bridge Co./Nippon Steel/Fluor Enterprises, money. Bid team officials did not know of Monday's bailout plan, nor if they can afford to cover the inflation by waiting longer. A re-bid would add time and cost beyond the latest estimates.
Contact Sean Holstege at