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Bay Bridge faces deadline in a week; Time running out on only bid to finish replacement span

September 23, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Michael Cabanatuan

Time is running out for what Bay Area transportation officials contend is the best, fastest and possibly cheapest way to get a new Bay Bridge built -- accepting the lone bid on the single-tower suspension span.

Just one week remains until the $1.4 billion bid expires, and the state Department of Transportation doesn't have the money to award the contract. Legislative efforts to fund the project failed in August, and state lawmakers have adjourned until January.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said three weeks ago, after the Legislature failed to determine who should pay for cost overruns, that his administration would seek an extension on responding to the bid. But so far, it hasn't done so.

"We would consider anything,'' said Bob Luffy, president of American Bridge, part of the consortium with Nippon Steel Bridge and Fluor Corp. that submitted the bid in May and has already granted one 60-day extension. "But it's a matter of whether we have enough time to react.''

Luffy said he's unsure whether the consortium can afford another extension. It all depends on the length and on whether suppliers and subcontractors stick with their original cost estimates, at a time when cement and steel prices are rising rapidly.

"No final decision has been made on an extension or anything else,'' said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the state Business, Housing and Transportation Agency, which oversees Caltrans.

Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said he's been in contact with the administration but doesn't know what the final decision will be. He said it wouldn't surprise him if the state lets the bid expire and seeks new estimates.

Caltrans said in August that the replacement span for the eastern half of the Bay Bridge would cost an estimated $5.1 billion, nearly double the $2.6 billion included in a 2001 funding deal that the Legislature approved. The span, which snapped during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, is being replaced as part of the state's toll bridge seismic retrofit program.

The overall program's cost also has risen, from $5.1 billion in 2001 to more than $8 billion.

Bay Area transportation officials maintain, reluctantly, that accepting the lone bid is the safest bet. On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, acting as the Bay Area Toll Authority, voted to request that Caltrans accept the bid instead of seeking new estimates or junking the design in hopes of building something cheaper.

A report last month by Bechtel, the San Francisco international engineering giant, also recommended accepting the bid, saying that seeking new bids or building a seemingly cheaper bridge could result in delays that in the end would make the span even more costly.

Commissioners also received a report on whether simply continuing the new skyway portion, the twin concrete viaducts now under construction, all the way to Yerba Buena Island would save money. Executive Director Steve Heminger said the years it would take to redesign the bridge and get it approved would probably make the idea a loser.

"If you want to do a viaduct or a cable-stayed bridge, you're starting from zero,'' Heminger said. "We have a design now that is expensive, but is ready to build.''

Jim Beall, a Santa Clara County supervisor and commissioner, urged the agency to consider supporting a cheaper bridge. Any bailout plan, Beall said, is likely to steal funding from other Bay Area projects.

Other commissioners argued that delaying the replacement span further in hopes of squeezing out some savings would only endanger the 280,000 drivers who cross the Bay Bridge daily.

"We have a responsibility to the motorists who travel across that bridge, '' said Scott Haggerty, an Alameda County supervisor and commissioner. "It's a dangerous bridge that's also an economic engine for the nine Bay Area counties. We need to ask ourselves what happens if that bridge fails.''

Chronicle staff writer Lynda Gledhill contributed to this report.E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at [email protected].

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