About Us | Gallery Search | About this Site | About Heavy Construction 

Bridge News

Bridge grilling starts today; Lawmakers want to know why Caltrans never reported it couldn't fund the project

January 24, 2005 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege

A baby born when the Loma Prieta quake damaged the Bay Bridge in 1989 will graduate from a four-year university when Caltrans opens the replacement eastern span to traffic.

That is, if nothing more goes wrong.

That's largely because the 15-year saga to replace the bridge has been riddled with well-documented second guesses and political agendas. And last week, newly released records shed light on attempts by state agencies to obscure the full cost and complexity of Bay Area bridge work.

Why and to what extent will be the focus of investigative hearings in the state Capitol starting today.

Caltrans and the agency that oversees it — the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency — had numerous internal warnings as early as 2002, and an official draft report in early April, that California could not afford the new bridge. Caltrans never released that report, as state law demands.

The $6 billion Bay Bridge construction — and costly decisions to go back to the drawing board midway through building it — threaten to increase the gaping hole in the state budget. Highway projects from Crescent City to San Ysidro could be frozen for years to pay for the Bay Area's bridge project.

Capitol probes seek to understand who in state government knew the toll bridge repair bill would break the bank and when they first knew it.

Lawmakers are asking why Caltrans chose to scrap the 8-year-old design ofbridge already half-built.

But new documents, obtained by the Oakland Tribune under the California Public Records Act, tell a larger story of a single outside adviser wielding enormous influence over a leaderless Caltrans. Documents raise safety doubts about rushing to splice a new structure into a bridge designed as a single system to survive a 1906-caliber quake.

Hundreds of pages of e-mails, memos and reports call into question the credibility of numerous Caltrans and BTH pronouncements, investigators say. Since late May, various interim Caltrans chiefs and BTH Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak have made a string of claims that are at odds with their own internal documents.

-Claim: A simplified concrete skyway would save California $500 million and be the quickest way to complete the bridge.

Released reports showed a range of possibilities, ranging from saving more money to wasting more. The average savings were $150 million. Minutes from a Dec. 3 meeting with the industry confirmed warnings that only one firm would bid a skyway. The first mention of reverting to a skyway came on Oct. 1, even though a month earlier Caltrans detailed 10 options. That Sept. 7 report said any redesign would take 16 months to engineer, and state officials say that's the soonest lawmakers would have a real cost to compare.

Nonetheless, Caltrans has asked the Coast Guard to launch public hearings into narrowing the shipping channel east of Yerba Buena Island. Without approval, a skyway cannot be built.

-Claim: The Bay Area's chosen tower design is too complicated to build efficiently and a skyway would be simpler.

A Caltrans "constructability review" of the self-anchored suspension, or SAS, tower came to the opposite conclusion in an Aug. 23 draft memo. It concluded the tower "is definitely constructible," but an unknown reviewer crossed out the word "definitely," as well as the next sentence: "Testimony to that is the fact that a responsive bid has been received."

Hand-written notes scribbled on the report reached this conclusion: "This bridge is definitely constructible. While this bridge has unique challenges, this type of bridge has been built around the world for 100 years." The writer went   on: "This is not that complicated."

-Claim: Caltrans "didn't know the full magnitude" of how badly blown the budget was until the agency unsealed a lone $1.4 billion bid on the tower from the American Bridge Co. team on May 26, which doubled the official estimate.

No later than April 1, Caltrans drafted a report titled "Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Retrofit Report for the Legislature and Governor," which it said "serves as notice" that "the actual costs exceed" the budget.

Caltrans reported that the budget for seismic work on five Bay Area bridges and two Southern California bridges cost $6.3 billion. They had $5.1 billion. Lawmakers never got the report. Other Caltrans documents in April put the cost of the remaining Bay Bridge tower project at $1.3 billion.

The nondisclosure meant that Caltrans opened bids eight weeks later on a project it couldn't afford. It left lawmakers with two weeks to find $3.2 billion, when Caltrans finally briefed them in mid-August, revising the estimate to $8.3 billion.

-Claim: Scrapping the design and canceling related bridge contracts will cost taxpayers $30 million, which will all be recouped in savings.

A Caltrans memo, written before the decision to drop the tower bid, showed that a related foundation contract would have to be terminated "for an estimated cost of $50 million." Another would cost $20 million, but Caltrans identified a total of $477 million in changes to related projects. The state has already paid $44 million on the canceled foundation job.

-Claim: The Bay Area's decision to build a Cadillac tower is driving the cost overruns.

A state audit showed overruns on the bridge were closer to one-third the total. Retrofit work on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge has climbed to $955 million, doubling the bid price and tripling the original budgeted estimate.

Dozens of Caltrans documents show months of anxiety about how to curb the agency's overhead costs, which run in the hundreds of millions of dollars for all bridge projects. One e-mail said Caltrans had spent $665 million by May on construction-related overhead and that by the time all bridge work was done it could cost as much as $1.4 billion.

One reason is the state goofed on estimating the price. Doing the work in-house, Caltrans thought, would cost $129,000 per employee per year. Consultants could do it for $150,000, the agency anticipated. In reality, in house work cost $140,000 and outside help cost $250,000 per person per year.

Outside consultants influence

Lawmakers are seeking to square the official rhetoric with the written record. One person they will want to focus on, numerous documents show, is consultant Tom Warne.

Caltrans first hired the former Utah transportation chief in the fall of 2003 to help get a grip on spiraling Bay Bridge costs. Warne returned in the spring and advised McPeak that she would need more money.

She retained Warne in the summer. He recommended a team of experts, which McPeak chose. The team pushed the idea that Caltrans should replace the chosen tower with a cable-stayed tower. Even before opening the bids, Caltrans had begun looking at a similar bridge being built in South Carolina.

By the early fall, Warne's influence over McPeak grew.

In a Sept. 18 e-mail he advised: "Have the meetings this week to announce that you are not going to award the project to American Bridge. Announce that you are moving ahead on two fronts to deliver this project."

It took Warne's cajoling to get her there. State officials noted that McPeak was still on the fence about "cutting American Bridge loose." She asked Warne a string of questions   the next day.

On Sept. 20 he told McPeak's team: "We do not have misgivings about what we are presenting." Later that day he said, "the least attractive option is to stick with (the) current bid," notes from a meeting attribute show.

Ten days later, McPeak and her team announced that Caltrans had rejected the bid and was moving on two tracks to rebid the tower and consider a redesign. She said she would announce a decision in December.

The cable-stayed design rose in prominence. Warne's hand-picked team member Ray McCabe had failed to convince the Bay Area to choose his cable-stayed option in 1998. The team's findings were questioned.

One Caltrans memo warned of repeating a discussion involving McCabe, Caltrans bridge engineer Brian Maroney and Bechtel Corp. consultants who questioned the findings from the so-called "Warne Commission" that a cable-stayed bridge could save California as much as $1 billion.

Sources familiar with the debate said Warne couldn't back up the claim. A chain of e-mails on Sept. 20 involving project managers and headquarters confirms this account.

"These figures need to be substantiated as there is no factual analysis provided to account for this almost unbelievable increase in projected savings," the e-mail writer said.

The Warne Commission "has displayed bias in its conduct of its review," the same e-mail author wrote, adding it "has already concluded that it is in the public interest to redesign the bridge to save money."

Caltrans called the work "advocacy, (which) it should not be doing under any circumstance."

Caltrans brought in peers from other state transporation agencies and the Federal Highway Administration, who rejected the cable-stay design.

But the state continued to listen to Warne. He recommended terminating bridge contracts affected by a redesign. Caltrans did just   that in December, resulting in 90 laid-off steel fabricators and a scathing letter from Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who demanded the work be resumed.

State law prohibits Caltrans from building anything but the original tower.

Quake jitters over design

The change in design carries potential safety concerns. A Caltrans memo and other reports show that engineer Brian Maroney warned that nobody knows how a shoe-horned skyway in the middle of a half-built bridge would hold up in a quake. He told Caltrans lawyers, memos show, that the new bridge would meet the legal seismic standards, but not perform as well as the original design.

The newly stitched-together bridge would not be optimal, just like putting a flatbed on the back of a sports car doesn't make for the best pickup truck.

"It's been my experience with engineering that quick decisions always lead to bigger problems. Any change now has the potential to jump from the frying pan into the fire, not land safely on the counter," one engineer said.

When lawmakers gavel their first hearing today, it will mark the 5,578th day since the Loma Prieta earthquake and, by Caltrans' own figures, every second of indecision costs taxpayers $8.

Contact Sean Holstege at [email protected].

The Bridge | The Builders | The Projects | Photo Galleries | History | Build Your Bridge
About Us | Gallery Search | About this Site | About Heavy Construction | Contact Us