Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, betting that new bids or a different design for the new Bay Bridge will save hundreds of millions of dollars and won't cause further delays, rejected on Thursday what Bay Area leaders had considered the best chance of getting the span built before the next big earthquake.
The state chose to let expire the lone bid for the new bridge's trademark -- a spire-like single-tower suspension span to Yerba Buena Island. The decision, announced by Sunne Wright McPeak, state secretary of business, transportation and housing, is a gamble.
Bechtel, an international engineering firm, concluded in August that redesigning the bridge could either save or cost hundreds of millions of dollars but would certainly result in delays of up to four years. Even seeking new bids on the suspension span, Bechtel said, could increase the cost by up to $200 million.
But McPeak said a panel of experts she has assembled believes that a simpler design might bring savings without delays if the process of seeking environmental permits doesn't take too long.
Bay Area political and transportation leaders, who had lobbied the governor to accept the bid or seek an extension, had a variety of reactions to the announcement.
State Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, said he backed the governor's decision and was pleased Schwarzenegger was taking action rather than simply calling the bridge a Bay Area problem.
"I applaud the governor for taking charge,'' Perata said. "That's what I expect from the governor's office -- leadership.''
Perata said he also supports Schwarzenegger's decision to investigate whether a new design could save money without slowing construction.
But Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said delays are now inevitable, savings are questionable and the only certainty is that rebidding the bridge puts the public in greater danger.
"We're disappointed that the quickest route to safety -- accepting the current bid -- has been taken off the table,'' he said. "The governor should know this will waste precious time.''
The new eastern span is an earthquake safety project, designed to replace the existing trestle bridge, which connects Oakland and Yerba Buena Island and which partially collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It's actually two bridges -- 1.2 miles of twin concrete viaducts under construction and the 2,100-foot single-tower suspension span that's the center of controversy. Construction began in 2002. The bridge was scheduled to open to traffic in late 2011.
But with Thursday's announcement, the future of the new eastern span remains uncertain for at least the next three months while McPeak's panel investigates the options.
"If we can't deliver a different design in the same time frame (by 2011 or 2012), we will simply rebid the (suspension span) knowing it has costs inherent in its design,'' said McPeak.
The bid that was allowed to expire was about twice what Caltrans had estimated when it was submitted in May by a consortium headed by American Bridge of Pennsylvania. It broke the bank on the project, which had already been beset from the start by cost overruns blamed on everything from political infighting to rising costs for construction materials and insurance.
The Legislature scrambled to cover the $2.5 billion in increases on the replacement bridge in the closing weeks of its session but was unable to strike a deal, rejecting a proposal from Schwarzenegger that the Bay Area pay the full cost of the overruns.
Hoping to find a way to cut the cost of the new span, McPeak has assembled a panel of bridge construction experts that will work with industry representatives to study whether to simply rebid the current design -- selected by a Bay Area committee in 1998 -- or to choose a cheaper and easier-to-build bridge, perhaps a cable-stayed bridge or a simple concrete viaduct.
The committee will have a report ready for the Legislature when it reconvenes in December for an organizational session, McPeak said. Lawmakers officially start the new session in January.
"We are attempting to get the best value for the public,'' McPeak said. "We want to assure the public they will get a safe bridge at a reasonable cost in the (completion) time frame that has already been projected.''
The committee of experts, headed by the former director of the Utah Department of Transportation, will study:
-- Whether it would be possible to amend the environmental studies and permits for the suspension bridge to allow construction of a different type of bridge without significantly delaying construction.
-- What changes would need to be made to the portions of the bridge already built or under construction.
-- How to reduce the cost of the single-tower suspension design if it is going to be rebid.
"We'll get critical information in the next few weeks as to whether the (single-tower suspension design) should be dropped or should be rebid,'' McPeak said. "And we'll have a recommendation in December.''
McPeak said the administration has no preference for whether the bridge should be redesigned or rebid. But she called the single-tower suspension design complex and said it likely drove up the cost and dissuaded other bidders.
"It's a unique design that has never been constructed before,'' she said. "There are 21 in the world but none this long, asymmetrical and in the bay.''
McPeak said the bridge experts are certain a cable-stayed bridge -- a fairly common design -- can be constructed not only cheaper but faster than a single-tower suspension span.
"What is the big unknown is how long it would take to get modification of environmental permits,'' she said.
The bridge project has 13 permits from 10 agencies, McPeak said. And while the Legislature could waive some permits or reviews, the project is subject to federal environmental reviews.
McPeak said Bechtel's figures may be accurate but only if the state is not able to minimize the delays for new environmental permits. Caltrans, she said, will be ready to put the project out to bid as soon as the Legislature decides to move ahead on the bridge.
Even as the Legislature works to solve the bridge's funding shortfall, McPeak said, Caltrans could begin the bidding process, though it couldn't award a contract until the money is in the bank. The bidding process takes three to four months followed by two more months to examine the winning bid for compliance. The shortest possible time for environmental studies, McPeak said, is 18 months -- "and that would be very compressed.''
Even if the state decides to redesign the bridge, McPeak said, it won't stop construction of the concrete skyway section, though it could affect construction of the foundations for the suspension span, which are also under way.
But McPeak said that even if the state decides to stick with the single- tower span and seek new bids, it owes it to the public to try to cut costs.
"We would be remiss,'' she said, "if we didn't review all the options and provide the alternatives to the public. ... We have to ensure that the public gets the best value.''
E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at [email protected].