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North-South Gap Widens on Bay Bridge

Budget: Big bill for long-delayed retrofit renews regions' battle over transportation funding and philosophy.


SAN FRANCISCO — Another north-versus-south showdown is brewing between California lawmakers over the long-delayed seismic retrofit of the historic Bay Bridge, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The feud contrasts the two modes of transport that define the two regions of the state: the graceful bridge span connecting San Francisco and Oakland and the sprawling freeway system that courses across Southern California.

Like warring siblings arguing over their share of the weekly allowance, both sides are trading barbs and stamping their feet over who deserves the money most.

To pay spiraling repair costs from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, Bay Area officials want legislators to increase the region's share of federal bridge replacement funds from $557 million to $1.3 billion and to approve a $1-billion loan from the state highway account.

But Southern California lawmakers complain that the plan comes at the expense of their region's motorists, siphoning critical funds from transit projects in Los Angeles and Orange counties as well as San Diego and the Inland Empire.

Caltrans Warns Delay Will Just Run Up Tab

While regional funding battles are not unprecedented, such fights have rarely been along transportation lines due to laws mandating a 60-40 split in transit funding between south and north.

As lawmakers dicker, Caltrans officials insist a funding solution for the nation's busiest toll bridge must be found soon to avoid further cost overruns in a project already years behind schedule.

A miffed state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has compared Bay Area transportation officials to well-heeled cousins who continue to dun relatives for loans.

Murray says state taxpayers already provided $800 million in funding for the project in 1996--in exchange for a promise that the Bay Area would foot the rest of the bill by extending a $1 toll surcharge until the bridge is paid for.

"The whole point of having a bridge with tolls is for those tolls to pay for the bridge," he said. "I just think there are ways to do this without asking the entire state to pony up the rest. After awhile, you just have to tell that needy relative that you're all out of cash."

L.A. County Stands to Lose $245 Million

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials estimate that the Bay Bridge funding plan would cost Los Angeles County alone more than $245 million. The potentially delayed projects include carpool lanes on the Golden State Freeway between the Hollywood and Ventura freeways, and lighting, bus stop and parking improvements at transit stations from Long Beach to Santa Clarita.

Orange County could suffer a $27-million loss over two years.

"We're not saying there's no need to retrofit that bridge; we just don't think we should have to pay for it," said David Yale, director of capital planning and programming for the MTA in Los Angeles. "There are some very serious impacts across the rest of the state that need to be known."

Bay Area officials counter that the bridge--which is owned and operated by Caltrans--is entitled to all the state funding it needs.

They say their region's motorists have rejected any notion of extending the $1 surcharge--half of the $2 bridge toll--beyond its present expiration date of 2007.

"This is the classic old north-versus-south tug-of-war, with the people down there complaining that a project here is being bulldozed through at their expense," said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland).

"But this bridge is part of a state highway--a state project run by a state agency. It's my assumption that if you design the house and are responsible for building the house, you're going to pay for it as well."

P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, said: "It's shortsighted and parochial for Southern Californians to say, 'This bridge isn't ours.' It's not a legitimate way for state legislators to view a project as critical to California as the Bay Bridge."

The Bay Area in October marked the 11th anniversary of the 7.1 magnitude temblor that collapsed a 50-foot section of the eight-mile double-decker bridge. The 63-year-old span handles 280,000 vehicles a day and is the region's workhorse.

Embarrassed Bay Area officials blame years of delay on acrimonious stalemates and petty turf battles. In 1996, the estimated cost to replace the bridge's eastern span was $650 million. Officials acknowledge that that figure has risen to $2.4 billion. Meanwhile, the price tag for refurbishing the western span and four other area bridges rose nearly $1 billion, bringing the total to $4.6 billion.

Caltrans officials have an alternative plan they say "will have negligible impacts" on Southern California projects. Under that plan, the entire Bay Bridge cost overrun would be paid for by indefinitely maintaining the $1 toll surcharge--without loans or increasing Northern California's share of the state's federal allocation funds.

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