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State Funding of Bridge Work Splits North and South

Legislature: Bay Area lawmakers favor using highway money for retrofits. But their Southland counterparts fear harm to region's transportation projects.


SACRAMENTO — Differences between north and south over seismic safety repairs to the state's toll bridges--which are concentrated heavily in the San Francisco Bay Area--have rumbled through the Capitol's hallways for years, at times threatening serious eruption.

This year is shaping up as another possible Krakatoa.

Bay Area legislators, with on-and-off-again emphasis, are calling on the rest of the state to yield coveted state highway funds to help pay costs that they say are the obligation of all California motorists.

Blanching at the huge bills involved, Southland lawmakers are taking a stand against a wholesale raid of highway funds--raised from state gas taxes--that would deal a setback to their priority transportation projects.

Southern California is willing to pay its share of expenses for projects elsewhere in the state, said Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "But this is an extraordinary expense," he said. "While we will accept some responsibility, we certainly want to come out of this as whole as we can."

As tempers have flared in public and behind closed doors, consensus is nevertheless clear on one thing: Unless resolved soon, the bridge-fixing impasse threatens to hold up approval of the entire state budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

At issue are big chunks of the more than $2.5 billion that state engineers say is needed to prevent seven state toll bridges from coming down in a strong earthquake. Five of the bridges are in the Bay Area and require 93% of the estimated repair costs. The other two are the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro and the bridge linking Coronado to San Diego.

The largest of the seven bridges, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, appears to need replacement of the entire eastern span at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion or $1.7 billion, depending on the design.

Some seismic retrofitting money exists, provided for in a roadway safety project begun in 1989 on the heels of the Loma Prieta earthquake near Santa Cruz and continued after the Northridge quake of January 1994. The money comes from a one-year one-quarter-cent sales tax increase followed by a voter-approved $2-billion bond issue, Proposition 192.

But because of a miscalculation by Caltrans--the state Department of Transportation--there was only $650 million in Proposition 192 earmarked for bridge work, and now the state needs to raise hundreds of millions more.

The plans put forward in recent weeks to fill the gap rely in varying degrees on California's 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Or if not that--according to one proposal advanced in the heat of argument--on proposed new bond funds to be paid from the state general fund.

In some early versions, as talks began in February among key legislators, more than $1 billion in gas tax revenues earmarked to build new highways and rail lines would have been shifted to upgrading bridges.

But even the smallest of the offers, advanced by Southland Republicans openly hostile to deals being advanced by Democratic Bay Area lawmakers, totals $300 million from this pot of supposedly sacrosanct money.

Southland lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, cite dozens of proposed highway projects that they fear would be jeopardized if highway funding is used to pay for the seismic work needed on Bay Area toll bridges. They say delays or scaling back could hit such cherished projects as:

* Expanding Los Angeles' rail systems, specifically plans to extend the Red Line subway to North Hollywood and eventually to the East Side and Mid-City, and a light rail line from downtown to Pasadena.

* Extending the Foothill Freeway to the San Bernardino County line.

* Building better connector roads to the state's freeway system from truck-crossing points on the Mexican border at Otay Mesa and Calexico East. The improvements are considered essential as traffic spawned by the North American Free Trade Agreement grows to major proportions.

Seeking to balance all interests, talks began in February between Gov. Pete Wilson and key lawmakers, including state Senate Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who has figured prominently in the negotiations.

The starting point was the $650 million for retrofitting contained in Proposition 192.

Wilson offered to add $500 million in gas-tax revenues to that fund--and promptly hit the first of many snags when Assembly Minority Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) called the amount excessive. Wilson withdrew his offer, originally contained in his 1997-98 proposed state budget.

Wilson then told lawmakers that it was up to them to reach an accord on dollar amounts.

Three months later, there is no such accord.

Rather, Democrats have been at odds with themselves.

"We worked and worked, and they treated us like dirt," said Lockyer at one troubled juncture this month. The "they" referred to fellow Democrats--mainly Murray and other Assembly members from Southern and Central California.

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