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Hundreds More Bridges May Need Retrofitting : Roads: Caltrans director says inspections find a greater need than expected. Bond issue may not cover all costs.

May 05, 1994|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Hundreds of additional bridges throughout California may need retrofitting, officials disclosed Wednesday, raising fears that a proposed $2-billion bond issue may not cover the cost of strengthening highway overpasses for earthquake safety.

Under questioning from a Senate budget committee, Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels said at least 80% of the bridges that have been screened so far to determine their susceptibility to earthquake damage have been found to need retrofitting. He said the number is much higher than what Caltrans estimated when it projected the costs and scope of its seismic retrofitting program.

At the same time, he said, the agency has found an additional 700 bridges that need to be examined for earthquake vulnerability.

This means that the state will probably be retrofitting at least 2,200 bridges, but it currently has funding for only about half that many repairs.

Van Loben Sels' disclosure prompted an angry outburst from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), who complained that the Wilson Administration has been deliberately downplaying the number of bridges that need retrofitting to avoid jeopardizing the passage of the bond issue.

"The people of California haven't been told that there is a substantial amount of additional money which will be needed to retrofit and make safe (highway bridges)," Kopp said. "Let's assume the bond issue is approved. We're still going to need more money."

But Van Loben Sels argued that it is too early to tell how much money will be needed.

He said the bridges screened so far are those in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas and were considered most vulnerable. As the remaining bridges are examined, he said, officials are hopeful that fewer of them will require strengthening.

"The important thing is not how many bridges (but) how much it will cost," he said. "As you get down into the lower-vulnerability bridges, you could expect the retrofit . . . could be done relatively cheaply. They will be smaller fixes, less complicated."

The retrofitting program, initiated after bridges collapsed in the 1971 Sylmar quake, has been a sensitive political issue in Sacramento ever since the October, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down part of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland and a section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. A board of inquiry determined that the retrofitting program had moved too slowly and been underfunded.

Four years later, six bridges--none of them retrofitted--collapsed in the Northridge earthquake, again raising questions that cost concerns and competing transit projects had slowed the program. A Los Angeles Times report found that 80% of the state's most earthquake-vulnerable bridges still had not been strengthened.

Gov. Pete Wilson responded by accelerating the program and calling for a bond issue that he said would pay retrofitting costs without sacrificing other transportation programs or requiring an immediate tax increase.

The state already had set aside $750 million in its gasoline-tax-financed transportation program to cover the costs of retrofitting 1,039 bridges that were considered susceptible to earthquake damage.

The agency had made no provisions to pay the costs of retrofitting toll bridges and another 1,500 overpasses that were in the process of being screened to determine how many required strengthening.

Caltrans officials estimated that 1,000 of the bridges in this group would require retrofitting, at a cost of $1 billion. But subsequent screening indicated that 1,200 would probably need strengthening.

In recent weeks, another 700 bridges were identified as needing screening. Caltrans officials said they expect the retrofitting of any of these bridges to be relatively minor, compared to the cost of $1 million per bridge for earlier retrofitting.

The bond issue, which goes before voters in June, would provide $950 million for the strengthening of about 1,000 highway overpasses and seven toll bridges. Officials in the Wilson Administration have been strong backers of the issue, claiming its passage--along with federal funds--would provide the money needed to complete the retrofitting program.

Kopp contended that the existing funding and the bond issue will not cover the retrofitting costs.

"At least another 1,500 structures will need retrofitting," he said. "I'm so confident that if I'm wrong, you can throw me out of office."

Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the campaign to pass the bond issue, said that even if Kopp's projections are correct, they do not minimize the need for the bond issue.

Without the bond issue, he said, there would not be enough ready cash in the state's transportation program to complete the retrofitting program at an accelerated pace.

"Not to pass this bond issue would be unwise because as a practical matter there is not the amount of money amassed to do this retrofitting," he said. "If you put this off and do this gradually and do not accelerate the retrofitting, it could be a very dangerous gamble."

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