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Finishing Bay Bridge no easy task; Finishing the Bay Bridge not easy

November 30, 2004 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Alec Rosenberg

PRESSURE IS MOUNTING to change the signature part of the new Bay Bridge -- its unique, self-anchored suspension tower.

A design team will recommend to state legislators as soon as next week whether to keep the tower or change it, the latest bump in the road for the nation's biggest ongoing bridge project.

Fifteen years after the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake prompted replacing its eastern span, the new Bay Bridge is at another crossroads. It's a quarter finished, at least eight years away from opening and faces multiple audits, a multibillion-dollar funding shortfall and potential changes to the tower.

The state's Independent Review Team is completing its evaluation. The team is weighing whether to keep the already approved self-anchored suspension design or switch to a more conventional cable-stayed bridge, which could save money but risks causing additional delays. A special panel of state and federal transportation officials met behind closed doors Monday to vet the team's pick before it goes to legislators as soon as next week.

The clock is ticking. The U.S. Geological Survey predicts a nearly two-thirds chance of a major Bay Area quake between now and 2032. The race is on to seismically shore up local toll bridges so they can withstand the next Big One. Three have been retrofitted. Four projects are in progress. All told, including expansion efforts, the Bay Area bridge work has created a $10.4 billion economic boom, led by the Bay Bridge's new $5.1 billion eastern span.

The new Bay Bridge took years to design, plan and select. But since the design was chosen in 1998, cost estimates have nearly quadrupled. Bay Area residents already are paying for the bridge through tolls, gas taxes and a state seismic retrofit bond. And every second of delay costs taxpayers an additional $7.72, according to Caltrans estimates.

Four big contracts still must be awarded -- the tower, Oakland approach, Yerba Buena Island transition and demolition of the existing bridge.

The tower is the biggest, but in September the state rejected a lone bid that was nearly double the Caltrans estimate. It's now up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators to decide whether to rebid the self-anchored suspension bridge or revisit another design -- a cable-stayed bridge or simpler all-viaduct skyway bridge -- and figure out a way to pay for the work.

Amid all this, Caltrans toll bridge design chief Brian Maroney has kept a singular focus: Make the Bay Bridge safe. The stress has turned his hair gray, but the rail-thin, bespectacled, 45-year-old engineer has stuck it out while other top brass left or retired.

"I have a philosophy that it's not OK for a professional to quit," said Maroney, who won Caltrans' 2003 James E. Roberts Structure Engineering Award.

Maroney saw the damage Loma Prieta caused to Oakland's Cypress Freeway, where 42 people died. He has worked on the new Bay Bridge from the beginning and is determined to complete the job and make it safe. He drives the point home by starting every presentation about the Bay Bridge with a picture of Pier E9, where the roadway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

"Fundamentally, its purpose and need is a seismic safety project," Maroney said. "We're all frustrated. We want to finish the job we started and make Route 80 safe. ... It's just unbelievably complex."

One of the most complex parts will be the self-anchored suspension section, also known as "The Pointy Thing," with its 525-foot-high tower and 67,000 tons of steel, enough to build 10 Eiffel Towers.

Fewer than two dozen self-anchored suspension bridges have been built and none like the Bay Bridge's single-tower, asymmetrical design, which would be the world's longest of its kind. In a traditional suspension bridge, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the suspension cable is anchored into rock. In a self-anchored version, the cable is anchored in the road deck. The deck is built first onto falsework -- temporary support structures that later will be torn down -- adding to costs.

"This design is so unique," said Sunne Wright McPeak, who oversees Caltrans as secretary of the state's Business, Transportation & Housing Agency.

It's so unique, it might not be built.

Caltrans estimated the tower would cost $740 million. After repeated warnings that costs would be higher, it received a lone $1.4 billion bid from an international team led by Pennsylvania's American Bridge Co. Lacking funding, the bid was rejected Sept. 30, paving the way for a rebid or redesign. Even the Bay Bridge design panel, which last met in 1998, reconvened this month.

The new course could benefit politically connected Kiewit, a contractor on the new Bay Bridge's $1 billion skyway and $177 million tower marine foundations. Kiewit and Koch Skanska planned to bid on the tower but didn't submit one in May because they wanted more time and said the budget was inadequate.

KKS urged the state to reject American Bridge's bid and rebid the project in a Sept. 9 letter to McPeak, obtained by a California Public Records Act request. "We believe the state could realize savings to both options in the range of $100 million to $300 million with minimal, if any, time delay."

American Bridge, which helped build the original Bay Bridge, invested 30,000 hours and between $1 million and $5 million just to prepare its bid. "We thought we had a winner," Chief Executive Bob Luffy said. "We don't think any alternative will end up any better for the state."

A Metropolitan Transportation Commission study, prepared by Bechtel Corp., said a redesign could save $255 million, or could cost another $140 million and delay the bridge opening by four years.

But the state's Independent Review Team, whose work helped save taxpayers $33 million in rebidding the tower's marine foundations, said Sept. 30 that a redesign could save more than $500 million and might not cause delays.

"You will not see the self-anchored suspension built as it was originally designed," said Assemblyman John Dutra, D-Fremont. "You'll see modifications in the very least -- to make it more common, more traditional and to get more bidders. ... I think the bridge needs to be a statement, but it doesn't need to be a Taj Mahal."

To help pay for the Bay Bridge, Schwarzenegger proposed diverting funds from Regional Measure 2, which earlier this year boosted local tolls to $3 from $2. The idea fizzled, but an alternative could be raising tolls again to $4 or $5.

The heavily traveled Bay Bridge -- 280,000 vehicles cross it daily -- is considered a "lifeline" structure. The new eastern span, which required 13 permits from 10 agencies, is designed to last 150 years -- twice as long as a typical bridge -- and open to emergency traffic within minutes of a big quake.

"The Bay Bridge is one of the most exciting and challenging projects our firm has had the opportunity to work on," said Marwan Nader, lead designer of the self-anchored suspension bridge portion for T.Y. Lin International. "Every part of this bridge was designed with seismic safety in mind."

The design team included up to 80 engineers. Bridge design veteran T.Y. Lin of San Francisco designed the new suspension span and skyway. Moffatt & Nichol of Long Beach designed the foundations for those two sections as well as the island transition and Oakland approach. Weidlinger Associates of New York helped on the suspension bridge design, while Donald MacDonald Architects of San Francisco was the project's architectural firm.

"The single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge will be a stunning signature of the Bay Area that reflects the beauty of our other suspension bridges," Nader said.

The tower is not without its critics. Perhaps the most prominent has been University of California, Berkeley engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh. Caltrans hired Astaneh to assess the Bay Bridge's condition after Loma Prieta and awarded a $600,000 contract with a retrofit study of the eastern span.

The single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge is too costly and risky -- it's not stable enough and is vulnerable to a car bomb, Astaneh said.

"It's like a table with one leg," he said.

Traditional suspension bridges are safe, Astaneh said. But there are only 20 self-anchored suspension bridges in the world -- all small and most built in the 1920s and 1930s, he said. There is only one single-tower, SAS bridge -- for pedestrians -- and two modern SAS bridges, which are lightly traveled, he said.

"The Bay Bridge is the artery like taking the blood out of your heart," Astaneh said. "You are using a system for your main artery, and you take that system and say it looks nice, let's use it for the Bay Bridge and in the middle of the most active faults we have in the United States, the Hayward and San Andreas. ... This is insane."

Caltrans dismisses Astaneh as unhappy because his proposed alternative -- a cable-stayed "Sail Bridge" designed with UC Berkeley architectural professor Gary Black -- was not chosen.

The single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge would be a one-of-a-kind structure yet based on proven technology, according to Caltrans, noting that world-renowned bridge experts designed, checked and reviewed the plans.

Those experts include Frieder Seible, dean of UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering and member of the Bay Bridge design panel, Caltrans Seismic Advisory Board and Caltrans peer review team for toll bridge retrofits.

"We are building a new bridge because of the seismic stress in the Bay Area," Seible said.

Caltrans contracted with Seible for $5 million of bridge testing. His team of up to four faculty members, three postdoctorate students and 20 grad students did large-scale tests of the new Bay Bridge, including its tower.

The tower is very safe, Seible said. Its four legs will be connected by shear links that are designed to deform during a quake, absorbing the energy like a bumper so the rest of the bridge can carry vehicles.

"We do allow damage, but only at locations that we design as engineers," Seible said. "We know after an earthquake where to look, what to look for and we know how to repair it."

While the state retrofitted hundreds of small bridges after Loma Prieta, it took the 1994 Northridge quake to get toll bridge reconstruction rolling.

Caltrans had dozens of engineers design Bay Bridge alternatives, including Maroney, whose all-skyway proposal was called a plain "freeway on stilts." In 1998, the skyway/SAS plan was chosen. The cost estimate: $1.3 billion.

Since then, the bill has nearly quadrupled, as delays were incurred, costs were underestimated, more consultants were hired, steel prices skyrocketed and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks drove up bonding and insurance costs.

Astaneh, who in 1998 told the design panel the self-anchored suspension plan was unsafe, had his Caltrans contract terminated. He remains critical of the Bay Bridge design panel, saying it focused on aesthetics ahead of safety. "The people who approved the bridge are the people designing it," he said. "They have conflicts of interest."

Maroney defended the design panel. "I still think they had safety first -- I know they did."

The tower was going to be built first but was delayed after the Navy blocked access to Yerba Buena Island. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown objected to the alignment. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown called the design selection a "closed, insider process" and still denounces the project. "Cost overruns were inevitable from day one," he wrote Aug. 19. "It's time to revisit the retrofit option. It may be much cheaper and just as seismically sound."

The Bay Bridge's existing eastern span has received a partial $25 million retrofit. "It's certainly much, much safer than it was," Maroney said. "It's not fragile now. Before it was fragile."

Alec Rosenberg can be reached at (510) 208-6445 or [email protected].

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