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Bay Bridge fight suspends all belief

January 3, 2005 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Ken Garcia

IF THE STATE'S elected officials could ever work through their political differences, one day they actually may be able to rebuild the Bay Bridge.

But at the rate they're going, another earthquake may have to hit to remind them of their waste, indecision and folly. Is there a reasonable explanation for why, after three governors, a complete turnover in the Legislature and eight state-election cycles, the design of California's busiest bridge is now being sent back to the drawing board?

Not if you look at the bridge's tortured history. It has been more than 15 years since a 50-foot chunk of the bridge fell during the Loma Prieta temblor, thus convincing the state that it must upgrade a number of its fragile spans. Or to put it in personal perspective, my son was 2 years old when I was dispatched in 1989 to cover the aftermath of the last big quake in the Bay Area. This year, he'll be going to college.

I hope he'll be a quicker study than our guardians in Sacramento, who have chosen to ignore the sage words that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. More than a decade after the seismic rebuild of one of California's most critical transportation links was deemed a top priority by state leaders, the project has been lost amid countless political power plays. No one has been accountable to make sure the bridge got built.

The rebuild plan has lingered for so long that the tape is looping: The same battles fought by previous lawmakers are erupting again. In 1997, then- Gov. Pete Wilson and the Senate's then-top Democrat, now Attorney General Bill Lockyer, broke off talks over how much state money should be used to fund a rebuild of the bridge. Wilson, revealing his Southern California leanings, wanted Bay Area residents to shoulder the brunt of the bridge's cost, which at that time was estimated at $1.4 billion. Wilson, however, did show a willingness to spend $500 million in state transportation funds on the project.

The head of Caltrans, knowing that it would take years to complete the project, urged the Legislature and the governor to reach an agreement and get the project moving. A Chronicle story reported in 1997 that "if all goes as expected,'' the new Bay Bridge would go online on Valentine's Day 2004.

So much for fearless prognostication.

In 1998, as the fighting and foot-dragging continued, the single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge design was selected after nearly three dozen public hearings. By 2001, the price tag for the bridge had grown to $2.6 billion. And after three more years of delays and pointless finger-pointing, the cost to the cash-strapped state had mushroomed to an estimated $5.1 billion.

All this took place while the state went from a humming cash machine fueled by the dot-com boom to an empty piggy bank after the bust. Most of the transportation funds were spent by the governor and the Legislature to cover the state's huge and growing budget deficit. Forget tax and spend. In California, the state's motto is spend and borrow.

The soaring price is what prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his feckless transportation honchos to toss out the single-tower suspension design in 2004 in favor of a plain concrete causeway -- a freeway on stilts -- in order to save the state some $300 million to $400 million. (Remember that extra $500 million Wilson once offered, and one can see how the bay span has become a symbol of a bridge too far.)

Bridge designers say it was almost certain that the cost of the single- tower suspension bridge would be underestimated because no structure like it had ever been built.

"This bridge is a unique structure and it's hard to calculate estimates for something that hasn't been built,'' said Cliff Freyermuth, manager of the American Segmental Bridge Institute in Phoenix. "At the time it was proposed, the state had a great deal of money and the economic increment was not considered to be the compelling issue.''

It is now.

If the state needs a model, it could look to the Tarn Valley in Southern France, where a bridge construction company recently built the Millau bridge, the world's highest span, and did so in three years. The company used private- sector funds to build the bridge and is recouping its costs through $6 to $8 tolls. That may not be realistic here now, but by 2012 -- the latest time line for the Bay Bridge completion -- it might seem like a bargain.

Not that Caltrans is good with time lines. Or cost estimates. It doesn't take a transportation genius to realize that you shouldn't change horses -- or sweeping bridge design plans -- in midstream.

E-mail Ken Garcia at [email protected].

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