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Lawmaker gets Bay Bridge preview Antioch's Torlakson favors design governor dislikes

March 5, 2005 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
  By Michael Cabanatuan

Wearing a raincoat, Caltrans hard hat and a fluorescent-orange life jacket, state Sen. Tom Torlakson took the Legislature's investigation into the Bay Bridge fiasco for a rainy day boat ride and a stroll on a section of the new eastern span Friday.

Torlakson, D-Antioch, head of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, invited the other 13 committee members along for the foul-weather tour of the Bay Bridge construction site, but found no takers. Instead, he was accompanied by legislative staffers, state Department of Transportation employees and members of the media.

In addition to a thorough soaking, the tour group got an up-close view of progress on the 1.5-mile stretch of skyway now under construction and a look at the site of the disputed half-mile span that will connect the skyway to Yerba Buena Island.

After seeing the skyway -- and climbing 10 flights of stairs to the top of one slab, atop a concrete column in the middle of the bay -- Torlakson said he still favored sticking with the single-tower suspension span that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to drop.

The administration has said extending the skyway all the way to Yerba Buena would be easier and cheaper than building the suspension span and could still be finished by the target date of 2012.

"I'm strongly pushing, saying we should stay the course with the (suspension span)," Torlakson said. That span is completely designed, he noted, while plans for the extended skyway are barely under way.

Part of the reason for the tour, Torlakson said, was to view the foundation work that the governor's plan would render obsolete. Caltrans stopped work on two underwater foundations for the suspension span Jan. 5 and started a months-long process to terminate the contract.

That process involves removing from the bottom of the bay a huge steel template used to hold pilings being driven into bedrock to support the tower. The work is scheduled to take place this month.

If that structure is removed, and state lawmakers and the governor later agree to stay with the suspension design, the template would have to be put back in the bay at a cost Caltrans officials declined to estimate.

Torlakson stressed to Caltrans District Director Bijan Sartipi several times during a briefing and on the tour that the transportation committee wanted Caltrans to avoid doing anything that would increase costs if the state were to resume work on the suspension span.

"We're confident he'll take that message to (Caltrans Director) Will Kempton,'' said Robert Oakes, a Torlakson aide.

It remains uncertain when a deal on the bridge design, and who will pay for the more than $2 billion in cost overruns, will be made. But when legislators and the governor's staff met Wednesday, the administration said it was willing to consider alternatives to its plan and asked for financing proposals and more meetings.

Friday's tour was also a chance to see how much progress has been made on the skyway, which Caltrans engineers say is 70 percent complete. Construction crews have pounded all 160 pilings through the bay muck and into bedrock. They'll anchor 28 concrete columns, now in various stages of completion, that will support the side-by-side concrete viaducts.

Atop the completed columns, crews are placing 80-foot-wide, 30-foot-long triangular concrete segments that will make up the bridge deck. The 780-ton forms are created at a yard in Stockton and shipped by barge to the construction site.

After pieces are placed atop columns, others are added to each side, eventually connecting and creating a bridge. So far, 250 of the 452 concrete forms have been installed.

"It's a beautiful-looking bridge,'' said Pete Siegenthaler, Caltrans' construction manager for the new bridge, offering a response to those who have criticized the skyway design as bland or even ugly. "It's quite attractive. And that has created some construction difficulties. It has been difficult to build.

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at [email protected].

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