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Gov.'s Low-Budget Bridge Plan Roils Bay Area Waters 

December 11, 2004 Reposted from the Los Angeles Times
  By Lee Romney

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Schwarzenegger administration on Friday proposed scrapping the grand suspension design for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and replacing it instead with a simple viaduct that critics call a freeway on stilts.

The austere bridge design comes after years of debate over the project's spiraling cost -- from $1.3 billion to $5 billion -- and over how much of that cost Bay Area commuters should shoulder.

In 1997, during dot-com boom times, Bay Area leaders chose an elaborate design to replace the earthquake-damaged east span of the bridge. It called for a soaring tower made of 67,000 tons of steel and an elegant suspension system that backers said would offer a dramatic architectural statement for the region.

But even then, some engineers called the proposal impractical. In the ensuing years, the state's budget has slipped deeply into the red as costs for the bridge have risen.

Too much, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, the governor is pushing a plain, flat design that would resemble the Santa Monica Freeway more than the Golden Gate Bridge. The shift could serve as metaphor for the state's reduced circumstances.

"There was all kinds of money in California" when the original design was approved, said Cliff Freyermuth, manager of the Phoenix-based American Segmental Bridge Institute and among the experts who were asked to weigh in on the state proposal. "Unfortunately, economic reality does come about on a cyclical basis, and we're in one of those times."

The administration's proposal calls for a simple viaduct, or "skyway," that resembles a freeway overpass. That type of design was rejected as ugly years ago by Bay Area officials.

Instead, residents agreed to raise tolls to pay for a grander plan. But those revenues aren't enough to pay for the bridge, and tolls would be raised again under the state plan. Despite projected cost savings under the proposal, Bay Area residents would still be expected to pick up the bulk of future costs.

The new plan is expected to spark a fight between Schwarzenegger and Bay Area elected officials.

"Bay Area residents have ponied up $2.1 billion in bridge toll money [to pay for the more aesthetic bridge], and now were being told we're going to get stuck with the same old oatmeal design," said Steve Kinsey, chairman of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the region's bridges.

Business Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak, who unveiled the plan at a news conference here, defended the look of the new bridge.

The open skyway style "allows one who is driving to see the vistas ... so you get an unfettered view of the beautiful bay, Yerba Buena Island, [and] gorgeous Oakland," said McPeak, a onetime elected official in the Bay Area's Contra Costa County.

The proposal comes after a review by public- and private-sector experts from around the country. McPeak conceded there was no consensus about the best design choice for completing the project, which is already underway.

In fact, the detailed report released by Caltrans, which McPeak oversees, recommends either the skyway design or that the current design be re-bid and the contract "de-federalized" to allow for the use of foreign steel. (Federal contracts call for the use of more expensive U.S. steel.)

But McPeak made the administration's choice for the simplest and plainest bridge clear.

"Gov. Schwarzenegger and I are proposing ... a skyway design for that main span. We realize that time is our enemy in all the work we are doing and we are very much trying to complete that bridge as soon as possible."

McPeak added that the simple design, which would continue a 1.1-mile skyway already under construction, is likely to be completed by the target year of 2012 for "at least $300 [million] or $400 million less" than the more elaborate suspension design.

Kinsey was doubtful: "They moved away from a project that was designed and permitted and under construction to design a solution that will need more piers in the bay, more studies and more permits. Even a great actor can't stand there with a straight face and say they can get that done in the same amount of time."

The estimated cost of the project soared from $1.3 billion in 1997 to $2.6 billion in 2001, when the design and financing was cemented through state legislation. Since then, however, estimated costs skyrocketed past $5 billion - far beyond the figures calculated by Caltrans.

The latest blow came in May, when a single bid was received for the self-anchored suspension portion of the bridge. At $1.4 billion, it was more than twice what the Legislature had set aside, and that even included the use of cheaper foreign steel.

By summer, Schwarzenegger had put the brakes on the project, blaming Bay Area leaders for the higher costs and delays. He said that if residents here wanted a fancy bridge, they could pay for it alone. Bay Area leaders responded that the state should pick up most of the cost since it customarily does so on seismic projects elsewhere.

On Friday, McPeak said that unforeseen spikes in the costs of insurance, financing and steel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks inflated the costs and now make the original design too risky.

Still, lawmakers must sign on to the new plan. And the battle promises to be big.

Senate Majority Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) released a biting statement Friday saying the Legislature would take up the matter in January.

"After conducting closed-door meetings that resulted in no consensus, the administration is nonetheless proposing to change state law and reopen design options on the Bay Bridge. This could lead to lengthy project delays, resulting in more costs and further jeopardizing public safety," he said.

Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who heads the Transportation Committee, said the redesign would require new environmental reviews, since it involves sinking more pilings into the bay, where the soil has not yet been tested. A contract for foundation work on the suspension portion, which is partly completed, would have to be canceled and the work undone, which McPeak said has already been factored into the costs.

Though the state usually picks up 80% of the cost on those types of projects, Torlakson said the current formula sticks Bay Area residents with about 78% of the tab to move forward.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a portion of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge's eastern span, closing it for a month. Rather than pay for a costly retrofit of the outdated structure, state and regional officials opted to replace it with a "signature" span that would be a fitting Bay Area gateway.

The current design calls for a 1.1-mile viaduct stretching from the eastern shore and then transitioning into a 1.1-mile-long self-anchored suspension bridge. Construction has already begun on the easternmost skyway, so an extension of that same style is practical, McPeak said.

The new plan would essentially extend the viaduct through the area originally intended for the suspension bridge.

Some outside experts, however, called the Bay Area's original design pure folly and said the overruns could have been foreseen, especially since there is no plant west of the Mississippi that can fabricate the required steel deck plates.

"It was a political, emotional, pseudoscientific selection" for the self-anchored suspension, Freyermuth said.

The east span is now "probably one of the ugliest bridges in the United States," he added. The simple skyway "will be a wonderful improvement."

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