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Official: Keep the span as planned; Bay Bridge study says it may cost more to change course than continue

September 22, 2004 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege

Going back to the drawing board, any drawing board, might not save the public any money on the reconstruction of the Bay Bridge.

That's the finding of a new Metropolitan Transportation Commission study, as it debates for the first time how to pressure Sacramento into paying its share of an $8.3 billion seismic repair bill on Bay Area toll bridges.

Current estimates place the cost of a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge at $5.1 billion, doubling the cost for the second time in three years. Lawmakers and the governor closed up shop last month without agreeing on how to pay for a unique tower. The complexity of that sleek design is widely seen as a main cause of huge overruns on the Bay Bridge seismic safety job.

The deadline to award a lone bid for the work is a week from Thursday. Every month of delay beyond that date costs taxpayers $20 million, according to a Caltrans estimate.

Sacramento's nondecision last month came after engineers at Bechtel Corp., in an MTC-commissioned study, found that going back to a different kind of tower might not save any money and could cost more.

MTC did not ask what would happen if Caltrans continued the current work, a simple viaduct, all the way to Yerba Buena Island. Until now.

The verdict: Construction would cost $665 million less, but the gamble's not worth it. Bechtel concluded that any savings from using simpler construction techniques and cheaper materials would be offset by 21/2 to four years of engineering and environmental reviews. Inflation would gobble up the savings. In the end, taxpayers would save no more than $225 million and could spend an extra $140 million.

The current plan for a single self-anchored suspension tower is expensive. The final product will be made from more steel than 10 Eiffel Towers.

Just erecting it requires years of construction on temporary towers in the water, which themselves contain more steel than the new Zampa Bridge over the Carquinez Strait.

Ongoing work on the new Bay Bridge, which is visible from the existing span, will take a viaduct structure 85 percent of the way from Oakland to the island, for an estimated $1.5 billion. It will cost $3.6 billion to close the remaining gap, which is 15 percent of the distance, plus complex connections to the tunnel through Yerba Buena Island.

MTC's report comes as two audits in Sacramento get under way and as the Bay Bridge has become an international embarrassment.

This week, USA Today described the tortured 15-year reconstruction history. Recently, the Boston Globe called the Bay Bridge the Big Dig of the West; and earlier this month the London Independent wrote a lengthy, blistering account of wasted money.

In an opinion piece, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger wrote that "our mania for second-guessing is one big reason transportation projects cost so much and why it routinely takes 20 years to build big highway projects in California."

"It's time to get the job done, not start the job over," Heminger concluded.

At today's hearing, the 19-member commission will openly discuss for the first time a plan for forcing a legislative solution in Sacramento.

The commission, made up of Bay Area mayors and county supervisors, declined comment at its last meeting on Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to divert tolls from the recent voter-approved Regional Measure 2 to the bridge project.

This time, the commission will discuss a plan that mimics a bill by Assemblyman John Dutra, D-Fremont.

Dutra's bill looked like it would pass both houses of the Legislature on the last day of the session, before state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, the newly elected senate leader, pulled it from consideration after a midnight meeting with Schwarzenegger.

Dutra and MTC insist that California should pay for its share of the overrun -- more than half. The commission also will insist Regional Measure 2 is a sacred cow, that MTC should set tolls and have more say on overseeing bridge work.

The commission meets as the Bay Area Toll Authority in the BART boardroom at 800 Madison Street at 10:15 a.m.

Contact Sean Holstege at [email protected].

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