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ANALYSIS: Bay Bridge cost-cutting could come at high price; Low-budget design might turn span into failure of our times

November 23, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By John King

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge has been so hobbled by delays and high costs, it's no wonder public officials now want to get the ill- starred project over and done with as cheaply as possible.

But in their apparent haste to scrap the approved plans so that they can claim to save hundreds of millions of dollars, there's a very real chance that lasting decisions will be made without any credible evidence that a new approach will deliver the promised savings -- and before any of us knows what a new bridge might look like.

The urge to do something ignores a crucial detail: This bridge is being built for the ages. Whatever results will be the costliest construction project in California history, and it will be seen by millions of people every day. If it turns out badly, it will stand as a monument to a failure of governmental imagination -- and of our times.

What is driving events is the Schwarzenegger administration's concern about the jaw-dropping cost of the most visible portion of the 2-mile span that will replace the seismically fragile double-deck structure that now descends from Yerba Buena Island to the mudflats on the bay's eastern edge.

Most of the new span will be a viaduct supported by pylons beneath the roadway, but the final 2,100 feet linking the skyway to Yerba Buena Island and the western span are envisioned as a "signature bridge," with a single 525- foot-high steel tower from which two five-lane roadways would be suspended.

Known as a self-anchored suspension bridge because one end of the cable loops back underneath the roadway, this would be the first such structure in the United States.

When the design was chosen in 1998, the price tag was $1.4 billion, and the target completion date was 2003. Now the goal is a 2012 opening, and the projected cost of the tower portion alone has soared to $1.8 billion.

Would that the actual tower had risen so majestically.

No wonder state officials have put the tower portion of the project on hold while an eight-member Independent Review Team looks at ways to reduce costs without jeopardizing either seismic safety or the 2012 date. The team --

which includes specialists in value engineering and environmental review -- seems to favor replacing the suspension bridge with a more conventional cable- stayed system, in which individual cables are tied to individual stretches of roadway.

While none exists in California, such bridges are relatively commonplace in the eastern United States, Europe and Asia. Their industrial drama can be spectacular, as is the case with the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge that opened in 2002 over the Charles River in Boston.

Potential savings

The review team's initial study in September estimated that a cable- stayed system could bring "potential cost savings greater than $500 million." (Other portions of the report suggest a figure closer to $200 million.) Within the month, the team is expected to follow up by recommending to state officials a specific concept -- such as the type of cable-stayed bridge -- with cost estimates based on recent bridge projects done elsewhere.

So what would it look like? Good question, because no design exists. All that's being reviewed are concepts. There's nothing to look at except photographs of distant bridges.

It's not as though looks don't count, but the driving goal is to fit a new design within the environmental and engineering parameters of the old one.

The easiest way to do this -- on paper -- is with a single cable- stayed tower at the same location as the approved version. Except that it would be concrete instead of steel -- and it would need to rise 180 feet higher than the approved tower in order to create the reach necessary to hold up the roadway.

If that's the case, we'll have a lone concrete exclamation point the height of the Golden Gate Bridge's towers.

Talk about giving the Bay Area the shaft.

Other cable-stayed alternatives are being reviewed: a shorter tower with additional pylons on the east to support the roadway and a system employing a tower at each end of the 2,100-foot final stretch.

The rationale seems to be that it's fine to buy a tower sight unseen if you save $500 million in the process and open on time. But even if such a notion made sense, it's probably not realistic.

Fact is, bridges are not something you buy at Ikea to assemble at home. Each one is unique. Construction firms and "experts" can make savings claims based on cable-stayed spans elsewhere, but there's zero likelihood that any of them are located between two lethal earthquake faults.

It's also likely that major structural changes to the design will reopen the environmental process, which in the Bay Area is a Pandora's Box if ever there was one.

Or maybe not. Nobody knows.

And that's the problem: Nobody knows.

What's going on right now is a well-intentioned farce: The state is trying to dig itself out of a financial hole without having any true idea of what's on the other side.

Before any decision is made, legislators should keep two options of their own in mind:

-- Stick with the approved bridge. The lone steel suspension tower is expensive and unusual, but it is fully designed and the permits are in place. Scrapping it might give the governor and his appointees a self-aggrandizing photo op -- but then what?

-- If the pressure for change is too strong, then dust off the original 1997 idea of a tower-free skyway that would continue the line of the designed viaduct to Yerba Buena Island.

The skyway notion, floated by Caltrans and then-Gov. Pete Wilson, sank under public scorn because it looked like something cobbled together from an erector set.

Yet an elegant viaduct could offer wide-open intoxication, with Yerba Buena Island's forested slopes a tight contrast to the vistas and water spreading out everywhere else. It'd be the sliding freedom you now feel on the San Mateo Bridge -- except in rush-hour gridlock, of course.

Ensure distinctive design

If the review team does recommend a cable-stayed approach in the coming weeks, and the governor endorses the notion and the Legislature decides to go along, then decision-makers should at least make sure the final result is visually distinctive as well as seismically safe.

One way to do this is to require the state to hire a bridge designer of unquestioned talent to craft a design rather than simply to hope for the best from Caltrans and the builders.

That's what happened with the Zakim bridge in Boston: Swiss engineer Christian Menn, a true artist, served as a consultant and shaped the iconic towers that aesthetically conservative Bostonians have embraced as landmarks.

This doesn't mean revisiting the original decision in 1997 to build a new span rather than try to seismically overhaul the trussed box that now exists. Too much time has been wasted already -- delays that could become a matter of life and death should a major earthquake strike.

But if decisions are made by fiat from Sacramento, the Bay Area could end up with an enormous visual blight in the middle of the bay. If that happens, let it be seen as the legacy of politicians who botched this process every step of the way -- with the final mistake made by ones now in office.

E-mail John King at [email protected].

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