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New Bay Bridge Gets Green Light

Having exhausted its critics, Caltrans is ready to build new eastern span.

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Earlier this month, Fremont Assemblyman John Dutra held what he called a "peace luncheon" between California Department of Transportation Director Jeff Morales and Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger. Over Italian food at Massimo's restaurant in his district, Dutra hoped to negotiate a truce between Heminger and Morales and talk about how the two transportation agencies might smooth out their working relationship. The subject of their dispute: the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which has long been a lightning rod for both the state and the region, prompting two major funding fights between northern and southern state legislators and countless battles in the Bay Area. Now, twelve years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and five years after Caltrans advisors concluded that the span required more than a retrofit and in fact needed to be replaced, construction on the Bay Area's single most expensive public works project is finally about to begin.

With all required permits now in hand, Caltrans has opened the bidding process for the construction of the project's first phase, the viaduct portion of the eastern span, which will eventually segue into a more complicated and dramatic suspension span near Yerba Buena Island. Transportation officials and legislators are nervously crossing their fingers that the bids will not vary wildly from Caltrans' engineering estimate of $746 million -- which would already make this the most expensive single contract ever let in the agency's history.

Amazingly, given its contentious history, the project now seems to be moving forward without a peep of protest. All of the parties whose complaints and maneuverings stalled the project for years now seem resigned to the inevitability of the new bridge. "There's no outstanding issues," declared Rod McMillan, MTC's manager of bridge and highway operations. "Down to zero."

The Bay Bridge's troubles began, of course, on an unseasonably warm, sunny day Oct. 17, 1989, when a section of the eastern span's upper deck collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Caltrans shut down the erector-set-like steel structure for a month of repairs and then started exploring how to strengthen the bridge. The years ticked by as engineers worked to design a retrofit. But while they were considering revolutionary technologies such as pendulum-like shock absorbers to better protect the eastern span's deck, a Caltrans advisory panel came out with a stunning suggestion at the end of 1996: Building a new bridge, they said, would cost roughly the same as retrofitting but result in far fewer traffic headaches. Thus began the state and Bay Area's circuitous path toward building a new bridge -- a path riddled with more starts and stalls than bridge commuters suffer through on a bad traffic day.

Today, on the eve of its construction, no one is still claiming that the new span will cost roughly the same as a retrofit might have cost. In fact, it is now clear that many of Caltrans' assumptions were seriously in error. "Some of those calculations were so obviously flawed, it's surprising it wasn't caught earlier," said state Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) who also was involved in fighting for bridge funding in the legislature. He quotes one particularly big oversight as an example: "The cost of demolition -- $200 million -- was not included in the early estimates." Caltrans also failed to include contingencies consistent with the complexity of the project, and to escalate costs to factor in inflation.

The impact of inflation is particularly severe due to the lengthy process required to approve the project. Of course, Caltrans is not entirely responsible for the unanticipated cost increases. Many other parties, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and the US Navy, also share the blame. Brown and the Navy opposed MTC's decision to build the new bridge north of the existing span because it would block some of SF's redevelopment plans for Yerba Buena Island. For its part, the Navy refused to allow Caltrans onto the island to test soils, delaying the project from anywhere between nine months and two years, depending who you ask. The mayor also latched onto charges by a UC Berkeley professor that the bridge would not be safe and pushed for an independent review of the project by the Army Corps of Engineers, who after poring over 75,000 pages of documents concluded the design was safe. (Brown did score one victory: new on- and off-ramps on Yerba Buena Island.)

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, meanwhile was complaining about the replacement span's design and calling for an international competition to come up with a "world-class" bridge. Brown pointed out that Oakland would be stuck with the ugly part of the bridge -- the skyway section resembling the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge -- while the more dramatic suspension span would grace the area closer to Yerba Buena Island.

Other Bay Area officials soon jumped into the fray, holding countless meetings over sixteen months to debate the design, a process mocked by the Los Angeles Times as "oh-so-San Francisco." Soon every interest from bicyclists to rail advocates were actively lobbying to add another ornament to the Christmas tree. Voters in four cities -- Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, and San Francisco -- overwhelmingly supported the idea of putting rail on the new span.

In the end, the lengthy "public process" seemed satisfy no one. Two-wheel advocates got their $50 million bicycle path on the bridge, but they won't have a way to pedal from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco because there is no funding to add a bike lane to the existing suspension span (which is itself undergoing a seismic retrofit). There will be shoulders on the new bridge -- lacking in the existing span -- but no new lanes because the new structure still must feed into the Yerba Buena Island tunnel and the existing five-lane western bridge. The design will be able to accommodate rail, but only light rail, not the heavier rail variety environmentalists envisioned.

Despite the discontent, however, the project managed to clear without a single lawsuit -- no small feat in the Bay Area. Robert Piper, a rail advocate and the Sierra Club Bay Chapter's representative on the bridge project, says he tossed around the idea of suing, but instead "surrendered," as he admits. "It would have cost us a bunch of money, we might have delayed the project, and I said, `What will we get?' I just ran out of steam intellectually and emotionally to try to pursue it further." Piper, who attended countless bridge meetings, calls the process for deciding the Bay Bridge's fate "an appalling example of mismanagement of public funds from the outset."

"Somebody will put it in the textbook as an example of debacle," he says.

Even as bidding for the construction of the viaduct segment gets underway, meanwhile, legislators and transportation officials are openly worried about the cost of the next phase of the project, the new single-tower suspension structure. Early estimates of $1.1 billion for the project made in 1996 had already risen to a whopping $2.6 billion by April. The latest price spike forced the state legislature to revisit funding this summer in a bill sponsored by John Dutra.

Despite the recession, that cost estimate may still turn out to be low. There are only a few companies capable of handling such a big project, so competition will not be as fierce as it might be for a smaller project. Moreover, the seismic retrofit work on other bridges and public works projects such as the widening of the San Mateo Bridge has meant that the heavy construction industry is still booming in the Bay Area. The lowest bid on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge seismic retrofit came in at $484 million and the total cost is estimated at $665 million -- about double a 1997 Caltrans estimate of $329 million.

Bechtel Engineering, hired by MTC, actually found that overhead costs and profit margins may end up higher than Caltrans' latest April estimates. That's why Dutra and MTC fought hard for a clause in his funding bill that puts Caltrans on the hook for cost overruns of up to $448 million. The alternative likely would have been a greater raid on Bay Area bridge toll revenues. (Dutra's bill already extended the two-dollar bridge toll until 2038 to address the new cost estimates.)

There is one group that is excited, rather than exhausted, by the project: the engineers who are designing it. After all, how often does the opportunity come along to envision a very visible monument that will be used by an average 272,000 vehicles a day? "The entire crossing is a technical tour de force because of the engineering problems that have to be overcome," says Chuck Seim, vice president of T.Y. Lin International, the engineering firm leading the bridge design.

The Bay Bridge replacement is the most difficult project of his career, says Seim, whose résumé includes design work on the San Mateo and San Diego Coronado bridges. (Seim also was part of the advisory panel that initially recommended building a new Bay Bridge rather than retrofitting.) He notes that the new bridge must not only withstand a magnitude eight earthquake on the San Andreas fault and magnitude seven earthquake on the Hayward fault, but also overcome the tendency of the soft soils near Yerba Buena Island to amplify a temblor's motion. "We had to resort to deep foundations to avoid those soft soils, and because you have deep foundations, you have to go to a long span," explains Seim. "A long span is always more difficult to design."

For their part, Caltrans and MTC officials are relieved and more than ready to get the show on the road; construction is slated to take five years. "The good news is all of [the controversy] is behind us now, and we'll be breaking ground the beginning of the year," says Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo. MTC's Heminger, meanwhile, hopes he's finished with bridge fights. "In the future, we're not going to get back into the bridge design business," he chuckles. "It's been a long, winding road." And Dutra, the peacemaker, seems to take the most upbeat view of them all. "I wish somebody would frankly write all of this down," he says. "It was a wonderful exercise in how to get things done."

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