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Hearings focus on new Bay Bridge span

January 12, 2005 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Mike Adamick

A team of engineers says the current single-tower suspension span of the new Bay Bridge requires no new design work.

Another team of federal transportation planners says the tower is the least risky option.

Caltrans even recommended the suspension span in August and later gave only a slight nod to a simpler causeway.

Yet, in the end, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed replacing the suspension span with a concrete causeway -- and Bay Area lawmakers have grown weary of hearing that it's supposedly the safest, fastest, most cost-effective plan.

"We need to get a full public accounting of all the delays, cost overruns and miscalculations," said state Sen. Tom Torlakson, who will lead a series of hearings Jan. 26 and Feb. 1 to investigate the project to replace the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

Torlakson and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, plan to unveil a road map today in Sacramento for the hearings on the bridge, which is expected to cost $5.9 billion, more than four times the 1997 estimates of $1.3 billion.

The hearings will center on a three-part query: Why does the governor believe a causeway is the best route when engineering experts recommended sticking with the suspension span; why did the costs rise so dramatically since 1997; and who knew what and when about the dramatic cost overruns?

"We want a safe bridge open as soon as possible, but Caltrans has presented no clear evidence to date about being able to do that," Torlakson said.

In December, the governor's office announced plans to scrap the suspension span in favor of a towerless skyway for a key portion of the bridge that connects to Yerba Buena Island.

Transportation Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak said at the time the move could save up to $400 million and maintain an opening date schedule of 2011. During a conference call about transportation Monday, McPeak said the governor's proposal has not changed since last month.

Torlakson said the hearings will dig for more information about the switch.

After all, there was no consensus among engineering experts the governor's office relied on to make the call. Some experts said a skyway could save money, while others said a suspension span is the best way to go.

A federal review panel said a suspension span is the least risky option, considering all the engineering work is already done.

As for massive overruns, the hearings will investigate why Caltrans, the state transportation agency, didn't notify the Legislature sooner that the bridge was over budget. An audit released last month said Caltrans should have known in November 2003 that costs would increase for the bridge, but the Legislature wasn't officially notified until August 2004.

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