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Simpler? Definitely. Cheaper? Maybe. PRICE TO PAY: Even if the new design saves money, state official says $4 toll is likely

December 11, 2004 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Michael Cabanatuan

The Schwarzenegger administration's decision on how to complete the new Bay Bridge eastern span came down to a duel of conflicting evaluations from two panels of experts -- one recommending a cable-stayed bridge with a soaring tower, the other saying a simple concrete viaduct was a better bet.

The state opted for the plain concrete bridge -- a design critics derided as "a long on-ramp" or "a freeway on stilts" when it was first proposed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997. Sunne Wright McPeak, the state's secretary of business, transportation and housing, announced the decision Friday in San Francisco.

"A skyway design offers the best approach to complete a safe bridge in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable and manageable cost,'' McPeak said.

She estimated that scrapping the single-tower suspension span chosen by Bay Area officials in 1998 would save the state $300 million to $400 million on a job whose overall price tag has soared to $5 billion.

And McPeak said that despite the selection of a no-frills span, Bay Area motorists should expect to pay for the cost overruns with a toll increase to $4 on all the region's state-owned bridges within the next few years.

It had been clear since September, when the administration rejected the lone $1.4 billion bid for the 2,100-foot "signature span" to link the twin concrete viaducts now under construction to Yerba Buena Island, that the suspension bridge was doomed. The bid was twice what the state Department of Transportation had estimated.

A panel of transportation and construction industry experts assigned by the Schwarzenegger administration to take a fresh look at the project focused from the start on a cable-stayed bridge -- a design with a 70-story concrete tower and an array of steel cables supporting the deck.

The panel, called the Independent Review Team, interviewed contractors, suppliers and other experts, then issued a 132-page report concluding that a cable-stayed bridge would save more than $600 million.

The panel also concluded that because the cable-stayed bridge would require only minor additional environmental studies, it could be done as soon as, if not sooner than, the suspension span -- expected to open in 2011 or 2012.

Caltrans then enlisted the aid of the Federal Highway Administration, which assembled a 16-member peer review team of administration employees, academics and officials from other state transportation departments.

The federal team did not make recommendations but reviewed the report from the Independent Review Team and other information collected by Caltrans. It evaluated the risk of further cost overruns, schedule delays and public opposition for six designs -- all variations of single-tower suspension, cable-stayed or concrete viaduct bridges.

The skyway design ran the lowest risk of cost increases and delays but the highest risk of engendering public controversy, according to the report.

"It's important to say that there is not consensus among the experts as to the best choice for completing the bridge,'' McPeak said. "There is consensus on this point: The suspension bridge is very, very complicated to construct, and there were many risks that we were likely to encounter (later in) the construction process.''

The administration, said McPeak, chose the design it felt could be completed most inexpensively with the least danger of further delays. "The least risk is associated with the skyway,'' she said.

But Bay Area legislators and transportation officials were skeptical, saying they have little faith in any decision Caltrans makes.

Mike Nevin, a San Mateo County supervisor and Metropolitan Transportation Commission member, cited inaccurate Caltrans estimates on the Bay Bridge, the Benicia Bridge and the Carquinez Bridge demolition as reasons to doubt the agency.

"They're 0-for-3 on bridges,'' he said. "Caltrans is clearly not on top of its estimates.''

State Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, said he would call a hearing in January to review an audit -- to be released late this month -- on the Bay Bridge fiasco and Caltrans' estimates.

"The same agency that botched the last estimate is the same agency recommending we build the skyway, saying it won't take any longer and promising it will save money,'' Perata said. "I'm not sure there's a lot of confidence in Caltrans there.''

McPeak, who oversees Caltrans, blamed the cost overruns on delays caused by the complexities of the single-tower suspension bridge, an unusual design that's never been built over such a long distance.

"You get to building something as big as a bridge, something as complex as this suspension span, and costs go up because there are a lot of unknowns, '' she said.

Engineering, seeking permits, even soliciting and evaluating bids took longer than usual because of the unique nature of the suspension span, she said. And there were unexpected expenses such as huge increases in insurance and bonding costs, caused by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and in the price of steel and cement.

Switching bridge designs in the middle of the bay -- and with the span already under construction -- will create complications, McPeak and Caltrans Director Will Kempton acknowledged.

The viaduct design will require additional concrete piers to be driven deep into the bay mud -- and that will require time-consuming environmental studies and permits from as many as 13 regulatory agencies.

It will also require new engineering and design work -- including earthquake testing -- as well as changes to the existing foundations and the connections at Yerba Buena Island and to the 1.5-mile viaduct segment already under construction.

And Caltrans will have to spend untold millions to stop work and cancel existing foundation contracts, and will be throwing away about $200 million already spent on the suspension bridge design.

But Kempton said Caltrans is confident in the skyway design, and that the savings will cover those costs.

"There are some challenges,'' he said. "But there are fewer unknowns with the skyway. This is a much simpler kind of design, and we are very familiar with this type of work.''

And while the skyway is neither flashy nor unique, McPeak said, it has its own appeal.

"The skyway allows drivers to see unfettered vistas of the bay,'' she said. "And we have some of the most beautiful vistas in the world.''

What's next for the bridge

Now that the Schwarzenegger administration has picked a new design for the Bay Bridge's eastern span, here are the next steps in the process.

Dec. 22:
State audit on cost overruns that drove the bridge's price tag to $5 billion is scheduled to be released.

Early to mid-January:
State Senate hearing on audit.

Early to mid- January:
State Senate hearing on proposed design change.

Unscheduled: Start of legislative debate over how to pay for the bridge cost increases.

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at [email protected]

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