Cost overruns on big transportation projects come as no surprise. They are business as usual at Caltrans and have been for years.
Some miscalculations are unavoidable. The price of steel can't be predicted. It's hard to estimate the costs of engineering and environmental challenges and delays caused by labor strife.
Politics play a significant role as well. Legislators push bureaucrats for a precise number, one that makes the projects that politicians want to deliver to their constituents seem affordable. Harried civil servants tend to tell lawmakers what they want to hear.
In such an atmosphere, it was predictable that the Bay Bridge seismic retrofit project would cost more than predicted. Nonetheless, a couple of things distinguish this overrun from past ones and justify Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's demand that bridge users pay a bigger share of the costs.
One distinguishing factor is the sheer size of the miscalculations. Originally projected to cost $2.6 billion, the Bay Bridge fix has ballooned to more than $5.1 billion.
The second is a matter of circumstances and timing. Unfortunately for the Oakland-Treasure Island-San Francisco span, it comes at the end of Caltrans' funding stream for seismic retrofits. Money approved in 2001 to finance earlier cost overruns of other bridge retrofit projects up and down the state has been spent. On top of that, the Legislature has been borrowing state transportation funds for years to paper over the state budget deficit. (Schwarzenegger continued the tradition when he borrowed $1 billion to balance this year's budget.)
The result is that no money is left in transportation coffers to pay for the newest Bay Bridge overruns without adversely affecting vital transportation projects in every other region of the state.
There is a convenient and simple alternative to state transportation funds - tolls. When the Bay Bridge was built, a toll structure was put in place to pay for its original construction and maintenance.
Voters in seven Bay Area counties recently approved a $1 increase, raising tolls from $2 to $3 to finance a host of regional transportation projects. Schwarzenegger has thrown his support behind new legislation that would divert those tolls to pay for the latest retrofit cost overruns. Bay area voters could also consider raising tolls to $4. Such an increase might have the additional benefit of helping to divert traffic to under-used BART and train service.
There is another, less costly way for Bay Area politicians to help finance the bridge repair - jettison the needle tower, the pricey add-on designed to make the bridge a signature piece of public art, not just a way to get people from Point A to Point B. The 525-foot needle tower originally was priced at $750 million; bids to construct it have come in at somewhere between $1.4 billion and $1.8 billion.
Because they will be asked to pay the lion's share of the cost for the new bridge, because they will cross it and gaze upon it for decades to come, Bay Area residents and their elected leaders deserve the opportunity to decide whether to keep their signature tower.