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Bay Bridge project scaled back

December 10, 2004 Reposted from the San Jose Mercury News
  By Mike Adamick and Andrew LaMar

The Schwarzenegger administration plans to scrap an elegant suspension span for the new Bay Bridge in favor of a two-mile-long concrete causeway while sticking Bay Area motorists with most cost overruns on the troubled project, sources told Knight Ridder.

The action, expected to be announced this morning, marks a dramatic shift for the $5.1 billion bridge project that has been riddled with delays, faulty estimates and political squabbles since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake brought down a section of the existing span's roadway.

Two sources briefed by the administration Thursday were told that the state would shave $500 million from the price tag and years from the construction timeline by switching to a plainer design. The so-called concrete skyway was proposed by Caltrans in 1997 and rejected by Bay Area political leaders who derided the design as an ugly freeway on stilts.

Previous studies have estimated that changing the design would push the opening date back four years, possibly to 2014.

The sources told Knight Ridder that Caltrans will recommend today that toll-payers pick up the bulk of the $2.5 billion in overruns the project has incurred since 2001 -- the last time a funding dispute erupted.

``If that's the plan, this gives a new dimension to the phrase, `Have I got a bridge for you,' '' said Mark DeSaulnier, a Contra Costa County supervisor and member of the original 1997 design team that rejected the plain skyway in favor of a suspension span that would provide a dramatic entrance to the East Bay.

At the time, the state said it would pay for the causeway. But if the Bay Area wanted a suspension span to provide an elegant cap to the bridge, the region would have to pay the extra cost. Bay Area leaders agreed. Since then, costs have soared from $1.3 billion in 1997 to $2.6 billion in 2001.

The latest battle stems from $2.5 billion in miscalculated estimates over the past three years, raising total bridge-construction estimates to $5.1 billion.

Sunne Wright McPeak, who oversees Caltrans, will suggest the state cover part of those overruns by picking up demolition costs for the existing bridge, estimated at $300 million, the sources said. The state would also count part of any savings from a new design as the rest of its contribution, leaving Bay Area toll-payers to cover the rest.

Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for McPeak, declined to comment Thursday.

``I'm not going to confirm any rumors that are out there,'' Dorinson said. A news conference is set for 11 a.m. today in San Francisco to announce details of the plan.

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