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Bridge review panel has experts on big projects; Officials identify those helping state find cheaper design

December 2, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Michael Cabanatuan

Project managers for Boston's controversial and costly Big Dig, the nation's largest cable-stayed bridge and a Washington-area bridge that was redesigned to avoid huge cost overruns are sitting on a peer review team that will help determine what type of span should complete the new eastern section of the Bay Bridge.

State transportation officials, who have been criticized for the secrecy of the process of reviewing the design for the new eastern span, released the names of the panel's 17 members Wednesday. Ten of them work for the Federal Highway Administration, and seven are officials from state transportation departments and academia.

The panel is reviewing the recommendations of a panel of bridge construction experts that investigated whether the state Department of Transportation should discard the eastern span's current design -- a single- tower suspension bridge -- for a cheaper span.

Those recommendations, along with the peer review team's comments, will go to officials in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration. The governor's office in turn will make a recommendation to the Legislature, perhaps as soon as next week.

Among the panel's more notable members are three people who headed large, complex and expensive transportation projects in other parts of the country:

-- Mike Lewis of the Massachusetts Highway Department, project manager for Boston's Central Artery, known colloquially as the Big Dig.

The $14 billion project, which replaced an elevated freeway with a series of tunnels and underground roads, suffered from a series of monumental cost overruns and delays. It is again the focus of controversy in Boston, this time for large leaks that have poured water onto the roadway and will require repairs.

-- Robert Douglass of the Maryland State Highway Administration, project manager of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a busy Washington-area span over the Potomac River that is being replaced.

Like the proposed Bay Bridge single-tower suspension span, the project ran into trouble when just one contractor bid to build the project with a price that was way over budget. But the bridge was broken into smaller contracts, redesigned slightly and rebid, saving millions and keeping the costs within budget.

Tom Warne, former head of the Utah Department of Transportation and a consultant who heads the expert panel, advised Woodrow Wilson officials on how to get lower bids, a fact state officials cited when they appointed the expert panel.

-- Charles Dwyer of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, project manager for the under-construction Cooper River Bridge, the nation's largest cable-stayed span.

California officials believe that replacing the Bay Bridge's planned single-tower suspension span with a cable-stayed bridge could save as much as $500 million. The architect of the proposed single-tower suspension span, San Francisco's Donald MacDonald, also designed the Cooper River Bridge.

The Schwarzenegger administration decided to reconsider the choice of a single-tower suspension span in September when it rejected the lone bid. That bid came in at $1.4 billion, nearly double the $740 million estimate of state Department of Transportation engineers.

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at [email protected].

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