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Perata flexes new job's muscles; He confronts governor on Bay Bridge overruns

August 26, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Lynda Gledhill and Michael Cabanatuan

Sacramento -- Wednesday morning, a day after he was elected the next leader of the Senate, Don Perata was invited to have his picture taken with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Perata, the newly elected Senate president pro tem from Oakland, didn't settle for a snapshot. He turned the photo opportunity into a chance to argue against the governor's proposal to require the Bay Area to pay the $2.3 billion cost overruns on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

"The real issue is to keep the project moving, and we'll use local tolls to do that,'' Perata said he told the governor. "And second, let's find out what is going on with Caltrans."

Perata's use of his visit with Schwarzenegger illustrates why many Bay Area officials hoped he would win the post over his chief opponent, a Southern Californian.

"It should take no thinking at all to realize that someone who lives, literally, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge would understand its importance and the importance of its safety,'' said Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transportation planning and financing agency.

"Even before his election, he was working decisively with Assemblyman (John) Dutra (D-Fremont) to put together a bill that makes common sense and has a meaningful chance of making it to the governor, and probably a reasonable chance of making the governor realize he has nowhere else to go,'' Kinsey said.

The cost estimate of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge has increased twice since 1997, when it was figured to cost $1.3 billion. In 2001, the cost jumped to $2.6 billion, and this year it ballooned to $5.1 billion.

Perata opposes the governor's plan to ask Bay Area voters in November to reallocate the third dollar recently added to the Bay Bridge toll and use it to cover the cost overruns on the bridge. Voters approved the toll hike, known as Regional Measure 2, in March to raise money for a host of local transit and highway improvements.

The governor is said to be coming up with a new offer, but details were not available Wednesday. The governor's current proposal, a bill carried by Assemblyman Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, is stalled in the Assembly. A bill by Dutra and Perata that proposes a short-term solution -- a refinancing strategy to raise money and award the contract for construction of the new Bay Bridge's single-tower suspension span in September -- could go to the Senate floor for a vote today.

If the Legislature fails to cover the cost overruns, Caltrans would be unable to award the latest contract in the project -- a $1.4 billion project to build the single-tower suspension span that will link the twin concrete viaducts now under construction with Yerba Buena Island. Construction of the new eastern span could halt.

Bay Area transportation leaders hope Perata's new influence will steer the debate over paying for the new Bay Bridge away from a North-South regional battle and the specter of $5 tolls, and toward a resolution that is palatable to commuters.

The job as head of the Senate is regarded as the second most powerful position in Sacramento after the governor. Perata will be officially elected today, and will take the post from Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, after the November elections.

Heidi Machen , spokeswoman for the Water Transit Authority, the agency that plans to expand ferry service on the bay, said Perata will fight hard to make sure Regional Measure 2 stays intact.

"Are you kidding? It's our best dream to have Senator Perata in that position,'' she said. "He's the guy who can hopefully convince Arnold.''

Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, a transit advocacy group, took members to the Capitol on Monday to lobby against changes to Regional Measure 2, and in favor of a solution in which the Bay Area and the state share the cost of the overruns.

Perata's election as Senate president, he said, likely means that Regional Measure 2 is off-limits as a source of funding for the overruns. Perata was the author of legislation that put the measure on the ballot, and helped create the list of projects it funded.

"Having Senator Perata in this position greatly increases the chance that there will be continued cost-sharing between the Bay Area and the state,'' Cohen said. "People need to understand how important this is. If we don't get them to chip in, a $4 toll won't be enough. And who knows if there will be future cost overruns?''

E-mail the writers at [email protected] and [email protected].

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