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Caltrans offers bridge report mea culpa; Agency promises legislators it won't hold back in the future

January 25, 2005 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege

SACRAMENTO — Caltrans apologized to lawmakers for sitting on vital information last year that the state needed billions of dollars to finish work on the Bay Bridge, during a three-hour oversight hearing Monday.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee grilled the state's top transportation officials on a day a new report was released showing that their plan to scrap the Bay Area's favored tower design for a no-frills skyway may end up costing taxpayers even more money. Currently, the estimate to complete the bridge is $5.9 billion. In 2001 it was $2.6 billion.

Lawmakers spent much of their time asking pointed questions about massive discrepancies between what Caltrans told them and what the agency's own figures showed. This, after State Auditor Elaine Howle walked through a blistering report of Caltrans' mismanagement of the bridge reconstruction program.

Howle testified that Caltrans broke state law by not reporting obvious cost increases and failed basic industry standards for keeping track of cost.

Last week the Oakland Tribune unearthed an official April 2004 Caltrans report to the Legislature documenting the need for another $1.2 billion, one month before unsealing bids. The report never made it to the Legislature.

"It is unacceptable, and I'm livid about the fact that we didn't provide reports to you. I apologize to you for it," said Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak. She explained that she was unaware of the legal requirement until the audit was released in December.

"I commit to you that you will not be receiving late reports, and if you do, you can call me on the carpet for it," said Will Kempton, whom she named Caltrans director in November. Kempton went on to describe other reforms stemming from the Bay Bridge mess, including a new management team and the establishment of cost control measures.

But Kempton's apologies and McPeak's explanations that the complexity of the tower design and a rapidly changing construction market drove up costs did not appear to mollify the panel.

Committee Chairwoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, announced more audits and more hearings in two months. Monday's hearings were the warm-up act for Senate Transportation Committee hearings Wednesday, where even tougher questioning is expected.

"Is there any other information you are holding back on this project or any other project?" asked Assemblyman Johan Klehs, D-San Leandro, to Kempton's assurances there was not.

Referring to the secret April report, which left the Legislature 10 days to find $3.2 billion, Klehs added, "Because you wouldn't want to be back here in six months explaining yourself under a subpoena."

Nor did the hearings win any converts to Caltrans' plan to revert back to the 1997 design for a simplified causeway all the way from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island. It would entail redesigning the 0.4-mile span and related support structures, something McPeak said again would potentially save $500 million.

"We have concerns and questions about the numbers Caltrans put out on Dec. 10," Howle testified.

Away from the hearing, lawmakers got a fresh report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, which showed that the uncertainty from starting anew could pile up costs faster than the complex tower would.

The tower, though more expensive to build, has already passed environmental reviews and wouldn't face local opposition that could add to delays, the analyst reported.

And Bay Area lawmakers were none too pleased with the progress to date on the current skyway construction, now about 60 percent done.

"There is a suggestion that (these cost overruns) are all because of the dithering of some local politicians. Certainly the skyway wasn't subject to dithering. It's half-built and half a billion dollars over budget," said Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough.

"Does a low bid mean anything anymore?"

Neither Kempton nor McPeak explained why Caltrans didn't scrap the tower design a year ago when bids on the foundation came in 60 percent over budget.

The Oakland Tribune reported in October 2003 that the bridge retrofit budget would run out of money and reported questions about the logic behind staying with the tower.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie recounted a similar conversation one year ago with Calrans Director Jeff Morales.

"My understanding is he was going to stop all bidding," Leslie said.

"Even at that time it was predicted there would be no bidders or one bidder. It was all known. Even at that time there was still time to change design. There was still time to go to a skyway. I'll never understand what happened during those months."

Contact Sean Holstege at [email protected].

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