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Span plan should be abandoned, panel says

October 6, 2004 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Andrew LaMar and Lisa Vorderbrueggen

SACRAMENTO - Key advisers to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger say the state should prepare to abandon the unique signature design planned for the Bay Bridge's new eastern span.

A more common cable-stayed span instead of the self-anchored suspension design selected by the Bay Area could trim more than $500 million from the estimated $5.1 billion tab, concluded a state-hired panel of engineers in its preliminary findings.

Caltrans engineers have in the past said that switching designs in the middle of construction would take too long and that any cost savings would be eaten up by delays.

"There are financial constraints that the state and Bay Area face right now," said Tom Warne, a Utah-based engineer who led the review. "There is political and community will to move forward with a technically sound but financially prudent alternative."

Warne recommends Caltrans simultaneously redesign the main span and, as a fall-back position, prepare to rebid, with modifications, the existing self-anchored suspension contract.

The state received only one bid on the suspension span earlier this year, which the state recently rejected because it didn't have the money to pay for it.

If the cable-stayed redesign proves too costly or would take too long, the state would be ready to move ahead with the rebid of the self-anchored suspension design.

"If, at the end of this period the impacts of advancing a cable-stayed design are manageable and the savings compelling enough, then it is the belief of the (consultants) that this will be the most desirable course to follow," the report said.

While the panelists appear to favor a cable-stayed redesign, they also found that an extension of the skyway, currently under construction, in place of the suspension span, would save $500 million.

Bay Area leaders viewed the recommendation with a mix of resignation, suspicion and trepidation.

In a fractious and raucous 18-month series of hearings in 1997-98, the region selected the self-anchored suspension design over a cable-stayed bridge because the public wanted a beautiful and unique span.

Newspaper headlines demanded, "No ugly bridges!" Mayors called for worldwide design competitions.

"The public was pretty clear on its wishes, particularly in the East Bay, and no one told us (a suspension span) would cost substantially more," said San Francisco architect John Lund Kriken, who served on the design selection panel. "It would be a tragedy if we have to revert to a viaduct, although a cable-stayed bridge is a beautiful bridge."

A cable-stayed bridge supports the bridge deck with a series of cables attached directly to a single tower.

A self-anchored suspension span hangs the deck from cables affixed to a large main cable draped over a center tower and anchored on Yerba Buena Island.

A viaduct features a series of short spans supported by piers or towers; a segment of the San Mateo bridge is a viaduct.

California Transportation Commission Jeremiah Hallisey questioned the validity of the state's recommendations, which run counter to a August Bechtel report commissioned by Bay Area toll officials.

Its engineers said that switching to a cable-stayed design span might save $110 million and delay the bridge two years.

"Bechtel's study was thorough, and we now have a new study done in three weeks ... and I question it," Hallisey said. "I would like to save money if we can, but the alternative of some Soviet-style (viaduct) is not acceptable. As for the cable-stayed, I'll have to look at it."

Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, who also served on the design panel, said he supports the administration's efforts to cope with runaway costs. The price tag for the bridge has soared from $1.3 billion in 1997 to $5.1 billion at last count.

"Clearly, the world is a different place than it was when we picked the design, and we have to look at it," he said. "First, we need a bridge that's safe, and we need one that we can afford and lastly, it would be nice to have an aesthetically pleasing bridge."

Before the state can move ahead with the recommendations, its advisers must determine how quickly it can obtain environmental permits for a new design and whether the project would meet seismic standards.

Caltrans engineers have said that both a cable-stayed and suspension design are earthquake safe.

Warne said with the cooperation of governmental agencies, the permits could be obtained within 18 months and the bridge constructed within the same time frame as the suspension span.

The consultants will study the matter further and issue a final report by December.

Its findings will likely play a critical role in the pending debate over how to pay for the massive cost overruns for the new Bay Bridge.

Schwarzenegger has said the Bay Area sought the fancy bridge and so its motorists should pay the bill through toll hikes.

Bay Area lawmakers counter that the state should share in the bill because it owns the bridge and its engineers failed to provide accurate cost estimates that local leaders relied on to make design choices.

Contact Andrew LaMar at [email protected] or 916-441-2101. Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773 or [email protected].

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