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California and the West

Costs of Capitol Crash Soar

Repairs: The bill to fix damage done when a big rig plowed into the building is estimated at $16.5 million.

February 23, 2001|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Far surpassing previous estimates, the cost of repairing the damage done to the state Capitol by a trucker who smashed his big rig into the historic building will be $16.5 million, lawmakers were told Thursday.

They responded with preliminary approval of that sum in taxpayers funds to launch the repairs, until the truck owner's insurer comes up with the reparations.

The Assembly Rules Committee cleared the funding bill, AB 115, and sent it to the Appropriations Committee. It is expected to clear the full Legislature quickly and receive Gov. Gray Davis' signature.

"I'm shocked" at the repair estimate, said Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) at a special hearing of the Joint Legislative Rules Committee.

The cost of restoring the entire west wing of the Capitol two decades ago was $70 million.

Previous unofficial estimates had suggested the damage from the truck crash would range anywhere from $3 million to $10 million.

Mike Courtney, a deputy director of the Department of General Services, testified that the state's repair bill will be sent to the insurance carrier of Dick Simon Trucking Co., the Salt Lake City-based employer of truck driver Mike Bowers, 37, who died in the exploding inferno.

An ex-convict, mental patient and substance abuser, Bowers smashed his 18-wheeler into the granite south portico of the Capitol on the night of Jan. 16. His reasons "perished with him," Highway Patrol investigators have said.

Courtney told the committee that, not only did the impact damage pieces of the blocks of the granite portico, but the fire burned so fiercely "the heat actually melted the granite."

Repairing and replacing the damaged granite will consume at least $3 million, he said, if matching granite can be found. The original pieces were hauled from a quarry near Folsom Prison in the 1860s. The quarry no longer exists.

Courtney said the full price of the crash will be even higher when the now-undetermined expenses of police, fire and other government departments are compiled and sent to the insurer.

He also indicated that costs in connection with damaged artworks, silk drapes, reproductions of turn of-the-century carpets and water and smoke damage will be higher than anyone had anticipated. He said repairs will not be completed until the spring of 2002.

To get started, Courtney said, a Sacramento contractor was hired on an "emergency" basis without competitive bidding to "expedite the process of putting the building back in place."

Johnson voiced concern that if further contracts were awarded without competing bids, taxpayers or the insurance carrier might get stuck with inflated costs.

In response, Courtney indicated that other phases of the project would be opened to competitive bidding.

Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) said he believes the state's claim for payment by the insurance carrier might be tied up in lengthy litigation. In the meantime, he said, bills for repairing the Capitol must be paid.

In a related development, Kelle Simon, president of Dick Simon Trucking Inc., said Thursday that he has not seen the Highway Patrol analysis of the crash.

Among other things, the report said that Simon executives rejected a recommendation by Bowers' training instructor last year that he be fired because he was unfit to drive a big rig safely. Bowers quit a short time later, but the company hired him back several days before the Capitol crash.

Kelle Simon said company documents he had examined do not reflect the training instructor's account that he recommended Bowers' dismissal.

"It's an embarrassment to our company," Simon said of Bowers' crash. "We're working with authorities in California on the investigation."

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Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.

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