The Schwarzenegger administration took the suspense - and the suspension - out of the planned new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Friday.
After weeks of private talks with engineering experts, officials propose to defuse a skyrocketing budget by eliminating the elegant but costly suspension tower planned for the span, and building a simple skyway bridge in its place.
The nondescript skyway design, similar to the unremarkable San Mateo Bridge, should save at least $300 million over a suspension design, and possibly more, Transportation Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak said.
McPeak said experts she consulted from the federal government and other states warned her that the unique self-anchored suspension system for the new bridge is so complicated that it could end up costing $2 billion extra by the time the bridge is built in 2011 or 2012.
McPeak acknowledged that she and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided this week to switch designs - essentially mid-span and in the middle of construction - despite receiving conflicting opinions from her expert panel on the design issue.
"There is not consensus among the experts as to the best choice for completing the bridge," McPeak said at a San Francisco news conference.
She said she believes the skyway design, chosen over two suspension-style bridge designs, will be the least expensive, easiest to build and quickest to accomplish.
"We need to get a safe bridge completed as soon as possible for a reasonable cost," McPeak said. "That is exactly the goal. The least risk is associated with the skyway."
The new span, already under construction, will replace the old cantilever section of the Bay Bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. The existing bridge was deemed seismically unsafe after it was damaged in the the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Some Bay Area critics have called the skyway a slab of cement on stilts.
While emphasizing that cost and seismic safety are most important, the chairman of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission derided what he said is the governor's shortsightedness on how the bridge will look.
"The Bay Area has long been known for striking designs," Steve Kinsey said. "I think the governor shortchanges history by not paying closer attention to it."
Administration official McPeak in turn tried to soften the expected disappointment over aesthetics.
"The skyway allows one who is driving to see the beautiful vistas of the bay," she said. "You get gorgeous views. You still have the vistas."
The administration continued to insist Friday that Bay Area residents and bridge users should shoulder much of the rest of the cost for what is now estimated to be a $4.7 billion project.
Administration officials say that probably means raising bridge tolls eventually to $4 or $5.
Bay Area leaders reacted with skepticism.
Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said the state should be responsible for paying most of the cost for a state highway on a state bridge.
"That's blatantly unfair," Torlakson said. "For me, aesthetics is not much of an issue. The issue is public safety and cost and time frame for opening the bridge to traffic."
He vowed that the state Senate will "drill down into the facts behind their recommendation" to decide for itself whether the administration is making the best call.
Several Bay Area leaders said they fear the new design could waste more time because it will require new drawings, new government permits, the tearing down of some temporary work on Yerba Buena and the placement of two more piers in deep water.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, chided the administration for its closed-door process and for the fact that the administration's own experts were divided.
"It is - at best - premature for the administration to make these proposals without some consensus and without an audit to back up the numbers," Perata said in a prepared statement.
In early planning stages of the project, officials had expected to build a simple skyway bridge. However, in the late 1990s, Bay Area leaders struck a cost-sharing deal with the state to build a unique 1-mile-long self-anchored suspension section on the 2.2-mile bridge.
Bridge costs escalated, however. Then, earlier this year, the state received only one bid for construction of the suspension section, and that came in at $1.4 billion, twice the amount the state expected. State officials rejected that bid, and called together a national group for advice, leading to Friday's announced new direction.
The administration is expected to present the plan to the Legislature in January, looking for approval for the skyway concept and a decision on who pays.
"We will have some very interesting discussions," McPeak said.
About the writer:
The Bee's Tony Bizjak can be reached at (916) 321-1059 or [email protected].