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Bay Bridge cost leaves panel split on solution

September 16, 2004 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Mike Adamick

SACRAMENTO - The California Transportation Commission weighed in Wednesday on the costly effort to build a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, with some commissioners arguing to forge ahead as planned and others calling for a new approach.

If a solution to overruns isn't found soon, the bridge could sap money from transportation projects up and down the state, commissioners said.

Once estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price of building a new bridge between Oakland and San Francisco surged to $2.6 billion in 2001. Four years later, after a self-anchored suspension span was chosen as the bridge's focal point, the cost now stands at $5.1 billion.

But the state transportation agency doesn't have the money to award the suspension span contract, with the lone bid set to expire Sept. 30. Transportation officials are looking to Caltrans to make a decision on moving forward.

"All options are being considered," said Caltrans acting director Randy Iwasaki.

Commissioner Jim Ghielmetti argued for scrapping the fancy suspension portion altogether, saying the rest of the bridge - a concrete skyway - is already under construction and nearing completion.

"Damn the aesthetics - I like the looks of it (the suspension span), but I want to get these numbers down," Ghielmetti said.

After overruns were discovered, Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority brought in Bechtel Corp. to crunch the numbers and determine what would happen if the suspension span is scrapped.

In a report released earlier this month, Bechtel concluded that redesigning the bridge could add years of delays and millions more in costs.

But money to keep building the bridge has not yet been found. Before the Legislature adjourned last month, Bay Area lawmakers proposed a stopgap measure to keep the project afloat. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger argued for a more complete plan, with the bulk of costs borne by the Bay Area.

In the end, no decision was made, leaving the bridge in limbo. There is still no money earmarked for the suspension span, although the skyway portion is funded until next summer, according to Caltrans.

Commissioner Jeremiah Hallisey said it was too late to abandon the suspension span, arguing part of the span's foundation is already complete at Yerba Buena Island.

"If we open this thing up again, it will be 2025 before this bridge is complete," Hallisey said.

As it stands now, the bridge is not expected to open to traffic until at least 2012.

Ultimately, Caltrans, not the state transportation planning board, has authority over the bridge project. But commissioners said they wanted to keep a close eye on its progress because money spent paying for overruns could be used elsewhere in the state.

About $5 billion in transportation funding has been shifted to the state's general fund over the last four years to shore up budget deficits, leaving just $200 million left to spend on new projects unless other money is found.

Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or [email protected].

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