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Governor picks simpler Bay Bridge plan; Stylish design to be abandoned in favor of skyway in response to mushrooming costs

December 10, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross

(Update: State officials confirmed Friday that the Schwarzenegger administration has decided to pursue the viaduct design for the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.)

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is expected to scrap the costly signature design for the Bay Bridge's new eastern span and will instead recommend building a simple skyway, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.

The shift away from a single-tower suspension span to a viaduct, similar in concept to the San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges, is expected to be announced today at a press conference in San Francisco, sources in state and local government said on condition they not be identified.

The decision to go with a skyway brings the state all the way back to the original design for the eastern span proposed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997. At the time, Bay Area leaders rejected it as unworthy of the region's splendor.

State Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, indicated Thursday that such criticism is far from dead, reviving the description of the viaduct design as a "freeway on stilts.'' He said if that's what the state wants, it should pick up the whole tab rather than expect the Bay Area to raise tolls to cover cost overruns.

Perata and other members of the Legislature will be able to vet the plan starting next month, when administration officials must come to lawmakers both to approve the design change and come up with a way to pay for the project.

The skyway plan was officially resurrected Thursday in private briefings by the Schwarzenegger administration for transportation officials.

Sources said newly appointed Transportation Department Director Will Kempton reported that the skyway plan could save the state $300 million to $500 million on what has turned into a financially hemorrhaging $5 billion project.

Kempton also predicted that, despite the need for a new set of permits and environmental reviews, the trimmed-down span could be completed just as quickly as the suspension span.

"The idea is that any time lost with permits would be made up in the back end because the trimmed-down plan would take less time to build,'' said one source in the governor's office.

Caltrans officials would not comment Thursday.

At issue is the 2,100-foot section of bridge that will connect the viaduct already under construction from the eastern shore with Yerba Buena Island. State officials have said they want the new span to be open by 2012, some 23 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake exposed the existing bridge's seismic vulnerability.

Caltrans had $740 million budgeted for the single-tower suspension section and was left reeling in May when the lone bid for the project came in at double that. Schwarzenegger rejected the bid four months later and set in motion the review that led to the decision to go with a skyway.

The administration's verdict was met with immediate skepticism by several Bay Area transportation officials and political leaders, who say any savings in switching to a simpler viaduct design will be eaten up by the cost of adapting it to the span now under construction. They also predicted the change would delay the bridge's opening by two to four years.

"It's a Soviet-style bridge, and it's going to result in an aesthetic Chernobyl,'' Jeremiah Hallisey, a state Transportation Commission member from San Francisco, said late Thursday.

Then there is the issue of who will pay for the new span.

Schwarzenegger remains firm that Bay Area drivers pick up the tab for the increased costs on the new bridge, sources say. He has said the state would pay for tearing down the current span.

Officials are talking about borrowing against revenue from the current $3 toll on state-owned Bay Area bridges "with a fourth dollar added on three or four years down the line,'' said the source in the governor's office.

Perata, however, said his position has not changed either -- that it's a state bridge and therefore the state should pay for all of it.

"We're paying our share in tolls, and we will continue to pay our share, '' Perata said. "But this is the state's design now. It's the state's project and the state can pay for it.

"At this point, however, my overall concern isn't about funding so much as the issue of public safety,'' he said. "Everyone had better look very carefully and with a jaundiced eye at the claim that this new design won't take longer to build (than the current design)."

Since rejecting the single bid for a suspension bridge in September, the governor's office has been evaluating a half-dozen options -- everything from a cable-stayed bridge with one huge tower to a smaller, double-tower span to the spartan viaduct design.

A recent analysis by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission -- with help from engineering giant Bechtel Corp. -- found pluses and minuses to all the plans. But those familiar with the designs say the barebones skyway offered the most potential savings.

Still, studies have identified two key problems with the skyway:

-- It requires the state to cancel or modify the existing construction contracts on the bridge -- changes that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

"We understand that the contractor has already done a lot of work in terms of fabricating steel for the tower,'' said a Bay Area transit official following the construction.

-- The new skyway would also require at least one additional set of piers in the bay -- a modification that will require reopening the environmental review process and trigger a new round of examinations by numerous state and federal agencies.

"The estimate in the analysis was a delay of two to four years,'' said the Bay Area transit official. Anyone who thinks the job can be done in the same time as the current design is "smoking something,'' he said.

Critics also say the planned skyway design will all but eliminate any competition in bidding for the job, and the lack of competition is likely to spur higher costs.

In this case, the one likely bidder is Kiewit Pacific Co. -- the same firm that's building the skyway portion of the bridge already under construction.

"They have a significant competitive advantage because they're already mobilized at the construction site, and they have a factory in Stockton where they are making the deck sections,'' said the Bay Area transit official. "Nobody else has one of those.''

Kiewit Pacific has several connections to the Schwarzenegger administration. Kempton, the new Caltrans director, is a former partner in the Sacramento transportation lobbying firm Smith, Kempton and Watts, which Kiewit Pacific hired to help try to reopen the bidding process on the suspension span after the lone $1.4 billion offer came in.

Kiewit Pacific also hired California Strategies, a lobbying firm headed by Bob White, a top adviser to Schwarzenegger during last year's recall election and the chief of staff to former Gov. Wilson.

Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. They can also be heard on KGO Radio on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Phil Matier can be seen regularly on KRON 4 News, and also on Sunday night at 9:30 on his own show, "4 the Record." Got a tip? Call them at (415) 777-8815 or drop them an e-mail at [email protected]

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