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Design begins anew for Bay Bridge

November 24, 2004 Reposted from the San Jose Mercury News
  By Mike Adamick

SACRAMENTO - Six years after choosing a fancy suspension span to put an elegant cap on the new Bay Bridge, Caltrans is back to square one on the $5.1 billion project.

The fancy span fell through. A replacement hasn't been chosen.

And, contrary to earlier hopes of a speedy move forward, the current options on the drawing board will result in further delays of at least six months, if not two years. This is the mess that will confront the Legislature when it reconvenes Dec. 6 -- the same date that the Schwarzenegger administration promised to reveal whether it favors rebidding the current suspension span or starting from scratch on a new, possibly cheaper, look-alike.

Meanwhile, Caltrans has created a national design team to help evaluate its options. The team is composed of engineers from the Federal Highway Administration and transportation officials from states that have grappled with major public-works projects.

It plans to meet in Sacramento next week to help Caltrans select the last segment of the new eastern span.

News of the new design team came in a closed-door meeting Tuesday between lawmakers, legislative staff and Sunne Wright McPeak, who oversees Caltrans as secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

``They've already been out to look at the bridge and they will be back here next week,'' said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for McPeak.

After 18 months of caustic debate during 1997 and 1998, the Bay Area selected a self-anchored suspension span over a more conventional cable-stayed bridge to complete the new link because the public wanted a more beautiful design.

A self-anchored span supports the road deck with cables that hang from a larger main cable. With a cable-stayed bridge, the cables connect directly to a support tower.

Since then, costs ballooned from $1.3 billion to $5.1 billion, as Caltrans grappled with delays, engineering problems, higher steel prices and a sour bond market after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Only one bridge builder offered to construct the suspension span. But the bid came in at double the engineering estimates, so Caltrans let the bid lapse Sept. 30, sending the agency back to the drawing board to select a new span.

Now, the debate is back, only it's happening behind closed doors and a portion of the new eastern span is already under construction and marching toward a void.

``Yes, we're sort of down to a basic design decision again, but now we have a national review team and they have no ax to grind, no dog in the hunt,'' said Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Concord, who attended the meeting Tuesday.

Caltrans is trying to pick between three options for completing the span -- although one option, a skyway, has essentially been ruled out because of engineering difficulties in deeper water.

A cable-stayed bridge with double or single towers would require a two-year delay because another round of environmental reviews would be needed. Also, the Legislature would need to give its approval.

But the design could also possibly save $500 million, according to a preliminary Caltrans engineering report released last month.

Jim Ghielmetti, a member of the California Transportation Commission who helped select the original design, said a cable-stayed bridge has become more popular in recent years.

``It should be much cheaper and it's not like it's going to be some ugly edifice out there,'' Ghielmetti said.

Its popularity is key to its price, he said.

``If I'm a contractor and someone gives me a plan to build something that has never been built before, I'm going to be a little cautious and over budget a little,'' he said. ``But if I'm building a product that's been built over and over again, there's a lot of people I could talk to.''

A self-anchored suspension span -- the design originally chosen -- is the third option and another story altogether.

With a solitary steel spire measuring more than 1,500 feet tall, it would be the world's biggest bridge of that type, which has already contributed to enormous engineering estimates.

But Torlakson said the self-anchored span could be altered so that less steel is needed while maintaining seismic safety. That could lower prices and avoid a lengthy environmental review. In addition, the Legislature has already approved the design.

Once the bridge design is chosen -- again -- the battle shifts to funding -- again.

The Schwarzenegger administration has proposed that the Bay Area foot the bill for the costs because the region wanted a fancier span. Bay Area leaders, however, have argued that the state should pay because Caltrans miscalculated costs.

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