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List of woes almost as long as S.F. Bay Bridge

September 20, 2004 Reposted from USA Today
  By John Ritter

Nearly 15 years after an earthquake leveled a piece of the Bay Bridge to Oakland, killing a motorist, a new span is billions of dollars over budget, mired in political infighting and nowhere close to being finished.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered an audit to explain why a $1.3 billion price tag ballooned to $5.1 billion. He blamed spiraling costs on the San Francisco Bay Area's demand for a graceful new suspension span to match the nearby Golden Gate Bridge.

Politics fueled a longstanding rivalry: Southern California legislators insisted that the Bay Area pay for most of the cost overruns. Northern California lawmakers balked, fearing another toll increase weeks before the Nov. 2 election.

The 68-year-old landmark is the nation's busiest toll bridge: An average of 280,000 vehicles cross it daily. But part of the 10-lane span rests on obsolete timber pilings sunk in the bay's deep mud. It was shored up after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but engineers warn that another major earthquake could cause "catastrophic failure."

Situated between two major earthquake faults, the Bay Bridge is the starkest example of the worrisome condition of many of the nation's bridges.

Although a decade of increased spending has trimmed the inventory of decaying bridges, more than 150,000 still need repair or design overhauls, according to an analysis of federal data by The Road Information Program, a non-profit group that promotes transportation policies aimed at reducing congestion.

A new span of the Bay Bridge won't be finished until at least 2011. With the Legislature deadlocked until it returns next year and a bid on the suspension portion about to expire, that date could slip further.

"Why does it take 20 years to build a bridge in this state?" asks Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which controls regional highway and transit spending. "We have a state transportation agency that can't seem to do things on time. We have a political process that allows everybody to say no all the time."

Southern California officials are among those saying enough. "What's happened up there has gone beyond replacement of a bridge," says Michael Turner, government relations manager for Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "We don't feel responsible down here for building a monument."

A two-part bridge

It's fortunate that more didn't perish on the Bay Bridge in 1989. Collapse of a double-deck section of Interstate 880 just south of the bridge killed 42.

The 4.5-mile span is actually two sections of double-deck roadways that meet at Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the bay. The western span, a classic suspension design like the Golden Gate Bridge, connects San Francisco to a tunnel through the island that takes motorists to the current eastern span, which connects with Oakland.

The state decided to fortify the western span against earthquakes instead of replacing it. A $700 million retrofit is nearly complete, though $37 million over budget.

But the new eastern span under construction —a combination suspension bridge and freeway on pilings —has turned into a money pit of incessant turf battles. Caltrans, the state transportation agency, spent seven years studying retrofit options before then-governor Pete Wilson decided a new bridge would be safer and cheaper to maintain.

The Legislature told the Bay Area it could have a fancier bridge than a simple viaduct if it agreed to pay for it. Within a year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission chose a route and design, a suspension span with a single 525-foot tower. The Bay Area would pay an estimated $150 million by extending for 15 months on the Bay Bridge a $1 toll surcharge that had been levied on all the state's bridges to pay for earthquake retrofitting.

But politics and competing interests set in. The Bay Area's insistence on architectural harmony with the Golden Gate Bridge, squabbling over the new bridge's exact route, foot-dragging by the Navy, a four-year environmental review, late demands to include a rail line, objections from powerful politicians to the design — all had a hand in stretching the process.

The Navy was about to transfer Treasure Island, its facility next to Yerba Buena that had been a major staging point during World War II, to San Francisco and worried that the bridge would harm historic buildings. For months, the brass refused to permit soil testing and environmental studies. In October 2000, the Clinton administration ordered the Navy to give the state 20 acres it needed on Yerba Buena.

By the next year, with the bridge more than $2 billion over initial estimates, the Legislature passed a new financing plan that prolonged the toll surcharge for 30 years. But the action came the same week as the Sept. 11 attacks. Insurance rates on the project soared amid terrorism fears. Steel and concrete prices also rose steeply.

Costs mushroom

As work began in January 2002 on the eastern bridge's long skyway section — a freeway on stilts — the suspension portion was still being designed. The state didn't seek bids until early 2003. As of last month, the price tag had reached $5.1 billion, $2.5 billion above what legislators had swallowed just two years before.

Some of the overruns were to be paid from statewide highway funds, and that miffed Southern California legislators, who feared that urgent freeway and mass transit projects in their area would languish. "Southern California shouldn't have to put in anything more than we've already put in," says state Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles. "Whether the Bay Area has to lose some projects they currently have programmed or they have to raise tolls is, frankly, up to them."

Voters in March approved another $1 increase on all seven state-owned Bay Area toll bridges. The extra dollar will boost the Bay Bridge toll, which is collected in one direction only, to $3.

Rhetoric aside, there seems little appetite for scrapping the suspension design and starting over. A Bechtel study in early September found that a lengthy redesign and another bidding process might be costlier.

If a Sept. 30 deadline on a construction bid for the suspension portion isn't extended, work will stop, state officials say.

Whatever deal emerges when the Legislature returns in January, Bay Area officials are sure of one unpopular fact: The Bay Bridge toll probably will go up to $4.

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