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A plainer Bay Bridge plan for a tired public

November 21, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Michael Cabanatuan

When then-Gov. Pete Wilson told the Bay Area in 1997 that he wanted to replace the seismically unsound eastern half of the Bay Bridge with a simple concrete span, the region's politicians, planners and esthetes roared in outrage.

They labeled it a "vanilla" design, "a standard-issue Caltrans freeway viaduct,'' "a freeway on-ramp.'' The Bay Area deserved better, they sniffed, and they demanded -- and got -- hearings and a voice in selecting the new bridge's design.

Now, eight years and about $4 billion in cost increases later, it appears that the fight is gone from the Bay Area. The indignation has melted into acceptance and a desire to get the bridge built -- before the next big earthquake.

Vanilla, it appears, is the flavor of the month.

The Schwarzenegger administration, having rejected the lone bid to build the chosen single-tower suspension span because the state didn't have the money, looks poised to impose its own choice -- probably a cheaper single- tower, cable-stayed bridge. And this time around, no one seems eager to fight for a fancier span, or to play a role in the design of the new bridge.

"It's pretty much counterproductive," said Mark DeSaulnier, a Contra Costa County supervisor who served on the Bay Bridge Design Task Force, which held a year and a half of contentious meetings before agreeing on the suspension span. "We know what the options are. It's time to get it done.''

A committee of engineers and transportation consultants, appointed by state Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne McPeak, is studying two main options, with a goal of saving money on a bridge that is now estimated to cost $5.1 billion -- nearly double what the state had planned when it last budgeted for the bridge in 2001:

-- Choose a new, cheaper type of bridge. The choices are either a concrete viaduct similar to what Wilson proposed or a cable-stayed bridge, a single-tower span in which an array of steel cables extend to, and support, the deck.

-- Stick with the current single-tower, self-anchored suspension span and seek new bids, probably after making changes to reduce costs.

Report due next month

The committee's report is due next month, perhaps as soon as Dec. 6, the day the Legislature reassembles in Sacramento for what is traditionally a brief organizational session. The administration reportedly is trying to set up a meeting with legislators to discuss the bridge next week.

The new eastern span, reaching roughly 2 miles, is really two bridges -- a 1.5-mile stretch of twin concrete viaducts already under construction, and a "signature span'' stretching the remaining 2,100 feet to Yerba Buena Island. It's the design of the shorter span -- which had been intended to become a Bay Area landmark -- that's being revisited.

Speculation among transportation officials, politicians and bridge designers is that the committee is leaning toward a cable-stayed bridge -- a concrete-decked span attached to a single, 70-story-tall concrete tower by a forest of steel cables.

The cable-stayed bridge has emerged as a favorite because it is a common design that uses a lot of concrete, relatively little steel -- the material that has helped drive the cost of a single-tower suspension span through the roof -- and is not as difficult to build as the current design.

That combination would probably attract multiple competitive bids and could save as much as $200 million, according to a preliminary report from the review team.

Continuing the concrete skyway now under construction all the way to Yerba Buena Island -- the plain Jane "freeway on-ramp" that drew so much fire way back when -- could save as much as $500 million, the report concludes. But it would require extra foundations to be built in the bay. Those foundations could require environmental studies so time-consuming they would delay construction for years while escalating costs eat away at the savings.

"Intuitively, (a viaduct) would seem to be cheaper,'' said Tom Warne, a former Utah transportation department chief who heads the review team. But when all factors are considered, he said, a cable-stayed bridge "is very, very competitive'' in price and more likely to be completed by 2012 -- the deadline McPeak has set.

"And it's still a very good-looking bridge,'' he said.

What the bridge will look like, however, is taking a back seat to how much less it could cost to build, and how long changing the design might delay its opening.

Oakland mayor's opinion

In the late '90s, the charge for a signature span was led in part by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "When we rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, " he wrote in a 1998 Chronicle opinion piece, "we must create a spectacular structure that expresses the daring of human ingenuity and symbolizes the splendor of Oakland and the East Bay.''

And now?

Brown will settle for anything, "as long as it's something that will stand up in an earthquake,'' said his press secretary, Gil Duran. "It's not about style anymore; it's about substance. Haggling about a pretty bridge -- that time is over.''

Then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was another loud voice against Caltrans' original "freeway on stilts" design. He and other politicians even got four cities to pass advisory measures calling for the span to be made strong and wide enough to allow for rail, advice Caltrans ignored.

San Francisco's current mayor, Gavin Newsom, has indicated little interest in the new span's design. Last week, he didn't return calls seeking comment.

The only people interested in wading back into the morass of the eastern span design are a dozen or so architects and engineers who served on a 32- member advisory committee to the Bay Bridge Design Task Force that selected the single-tower suspension bridge.

Although the committee has long since been officially disbanded, the ex- members met informally last week at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission headquarters in Oakland to discuss their concerns about the bridge design's reconsideration.

The group hopes to meet as "a group of concerned professionals'' with the state's review team to share what they discussed in the dozens of public meetings they held on the bridge design, said John Kriken, an architect who had been vice chair of the committee.

"We want to make sure they are aware of the pluses and minuses all the way around,'' Kriken said.

Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, said the group "can offer their input. I'm sure it will be welcomed.''

The clear orders to the state review team, however, are to determine if a new, cheaper bridge can be designed in a way that gets the job done fast.

"Whatever the impacts (of a design change) are, if the state can get through the environmental process in an expeditious way,'' Warne said, "there could be significant cost savings.''

And, at least for now, that seems to be the Bay Area's primary concern, too.

"Everyone seems to have had enough,'' said Abolhassan Astaneh, a professor of structural engineering at UC Berkeley and a critic of the single- tower suspension design. "Let's get it over with. All we really want is a bridge that is safe and that we can afford.''

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