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Pitch for a switch; Caltrans chief asks leaders to back skyway despite millions already spent

December 17, 2004 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Dan Walters

Caltrans Director Will Kempton pleaded with Bay Area leaders Thursday to back a design change for the new Bay Bridge, arguing that a plainer skyway will prove much easier to build than a suspension span.

"I really, truly believe that if we can get over the upfront issues, we can build that bridge much faster," Kempton said at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Contra Costa Council, a leading business group.

But more than $200 million has already been sunk into the bridge project to make way for a suspension span, including one tower foundation on Yerba Buena Island and portions of two more foundations in the middle of the Bay between the island and Oakland.

In addition to the foundation work, the sunken costs include more than $100 million for design, permit fees, seismic testing, lucrative bidding supplements and years of staff work.

Without expensive revisions, the work already completed could turn the Bay Bridge into a Winchester Mystery House filled with prebuilt foundations that support nothing but air and detour routes that dead-end.

Caltrans officials said those lost dollars are already accounted for in new projections that show the state could shave $300 million to $400 million off the bridge price by switching designs.

Critics argue, however, that those projected savings could evaporate with further delays and that Caltrans has a history of missing the mark on cost estimates for the $5.1 billion bridge.

Kempton also said Thursday that the suspension span is too complicated and that engineering obstacles are likely to arise once construction begins on the linchpin portion.

Finishing off the bridge with a skyway similar to the portion already emerging from the mudflats in Oakland would probably save time and money because engineers have already figured out how to address construction challenges, Kempton said.

"You never know in the construction business, but I can say we learned from that experience," Kempton said. "A skyway is a much more conventional design."

Kempton's plea came a day after members of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional planning body, said they would seek support among cities and counties to keep the suspension span, which is the original design favored by the Bay Area seven years ago.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey said it is too late to change, now that millions of dollars have been spent to support the suspension span. In addition, the span is fully designed, whereas a skyway would require another round of design and environmental reviews that could add years to the 2012 opening.

Kempton countered that construction delays could be avoided if the Bay Area gets behind the skyway quickly.

"The plan can be successful if we can bring everyone together," Kempton said.

That's an unlikely scenario, given the loud objections being voiced by Bay Area leaders, who note the waste of tearing down what has already been built specifically for a suspension span.

Figuring out just how much money has been sunk into supporting the span, however, is about as difficult as building the bridge itself.

A Caltrans report shows the state stands to lose more than $200 million by changing designs. Bijan Sartipi, who heads Caltrans' Bay Area division, said Thursday his agency is still working to determine the exact amount.

One suspension-span contract is already complete - a roughly $25 million foundation on Yerba Buena Island. It would have to be retrofitted if the type of bridge above it is changed.

Another suspension span contract is more than 20 percent complete, but was halted recently. That $177 million contract calls for building two foundations in the Bay, including one for the span's sweeping single tower. Those structures would have to be altered, reports show.

In addition, several segments of the part of the bridge already under construction would have to be altered to accommodate a skyway.

Kempton said those segments have not been built yet, so Caltrans won't lose out on material costs, although the state has already spent money on design fees and environmental permits.

Detours on Yerba Buena Island would need more work as well, a Caltrans report says. About 20 percent of a $71 million detour contract that had been configured for the suspension span has already been completed, records show.

Some of these issues are likely to be detailed more thoroughly in an audit expected next week, while others will be hashed out when the Legislature returns next month and hearings are held.

Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or at [email protected].

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