YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

More Bridges Need Retrofitting : Highways: Caltrans tells Legislature 1,000 more structures, some in O.C., require earthquake upgrading. The finding could add $1 billion to construction bill.


SACRAMENTO — Two months after the Northridge earthquake prompted a re-evaluation of the safety of highway structures, transportation officials have determined that seismic strengthening will be needed on approximately 1,000 additional bridges, doubling the scope of the freeway retrofitting program and increasing costs by $1 billion.

More than one-third of the costs will not be covered by a proposed $2-billion bond issue for earthquake-related repairs, and Caltrans will need to find other funding sources to pay for the rest of the retrofitting.

Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels said this week that the new estimates were produced for lawmakers as they were fashioning the bond issue for earthquake recovery. Caltrans screened a sampling of 60 bridges to determine the vulnerability of 1,500 bridges to earthquake damage.

He said engineers concluded that two-thirds of the 1,500 bridges need some form of seismic strengthening. Officials put the cost at about $1 million a bridge.

"We think it's a pretty good number. It's not a wild guess," said Van Loben Sels.

It remains unclear what structures in Orange County would be added to the list.

"Some of the candidate projects will be in Orange County, but we don't know how many," said Jim Drago, a Caltrans spokesman.

Until late last week, officials at the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, which oversees Caltrans, had said it was unknown how many bridges would need strengthening.

Then, in private meetings with legislators last Thursday and Friday, officials disclosed the magnitude of the retrofitting, angering some lawmakers.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) charged that officials had known all along how many bridges would probably need retrofitting but withheld the information until they saw an opportunity to get additional funding.

"It's a disturbing pattern in Caltrans of suppressing information," said Kopp.

Caltrans officials said they did not know how many of the 1,500 bridges needed fixing until they did the sampling.

The agency already is retrofitting 1,039 bridges statewide at an estimated cost of $750 million and hopes to complete the work by the end of 1995. Of those, 51 bridges are in Orange County. The money for those projects has been put aside in the State Transportation Improvement Program, financed primarily by gasoline tax revenues.

The additional 1,500 bridges came from a list that included structures Caltrans had screened once and had decided needed a more thorough examination before a retrofitting decision could be made. The list also included bridges near the epicenter of the Northridge quake and those constructed in the 1970s.

Before the quake, Caltrans officials had determined that these older bridges were strong enough to withstand earthquake forces, but that assumption was disproved when some of the structures failed in the Jan. 17 temblor.

While a complete review of the 1,500 bridges will not be finished until the end of June, Van Loben Sels said officials decided to prepare a cost estimate when it became apparent that bond issue money might be available to help pay for retrofitting. He said bridges from all the earthquake-prone areas of the state were sampled.

"The bond thing came along and it seemed that we needed to strike while the opportunity was there and so we made the best estimate we could and I think it's a reasonable one," Van Loben Sels said.

Kopp said the new figures raise questions about the financing of the retrofitting program. Besides the estimated $1-billion cost for strengthening the additional 1,000 structures, there is a $650-million price tag for retrofitting the state's toll bridges.

Of this total of $1.65 billion, the bond issue will cover only $950 million. The Administration of Gov. Pete Wilson has said that other funding sources can make up the difference.

Van Loben Sels said the Clinton Administration has freed up some state funds for retrofitting by agreeing to pay $315 million toward earthquake repair costs from the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor.

And he said the federal government is expected to come forth with an additional $200 million to cover other Loma Prieta costs and the costs of retrofitting bridges damaged by the Northridge quake. In addition, he said, state gasoline tax revenues will pay for $40 million of the toll bridge costs.

"You add it all up and we're just short $100 million," he said, adding that Caltrans could probably make up that shortage with savings from other projects.

Kopp was skeptical. "We have no guarantee of federal funds and I don't think there's even a reasonable probability for these unjustified assumptions," he said. "We have insufficient funds and there ain't going to be enough money unless we have a gas tax (increase) next year."

Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) said he also is concerned that the $950 million will not cover the cost of retrofitting all bridges that need strengthening.

Van Loben Sels said the next group of bridges are going to be more costly to retrofit because many of them are complex structures with clustered columns and unique design details. In addition, he said, the retrofitting program is being accelerated and that is expected to cause contractors to submit higher bids.

"You may pay 10% more to get it done faster," he said. "We expect to tell contractors, 'We want you to work six days a week 10 hours a day' and you pay a premium for that weekend work."

Wilson ordered the acceleration of the retrofitting projects after The Times reported that 80% of the bridges deemed seismically unsafe had not been strengthened. Also, lawmakers had introduced legislation that would have forced the state to speed up the retrofitting program.

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.

Los Angeles Times Articles