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Steep Cost Overruns, Delays Plague Efforts to Rebuild Bay Bridge

May 29, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

When officials six years ago unveiled their plans to rebuild portions of the earthquake-damaged San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, they said the span would rival even the famed Golden Gate Bridge.

They envisioned a sleek, modern design that would have at its center a 525-foot suspension tower rising from San Francisco Bay, providing a distinctive addition to the area's skyline.

But this gem is proving to be costly. The elaborate design, praised at its inception, now is being blamed for ballooning costs and several delays. Caltrans says it will cost about $4 billion to build the bridge -- three times more than the agency expected in 2001.

This week, officials announced that the suspension tower alone would cost $1 billion more than originally expected.

One reason, they said, is the state's "Buy America" rules, which dictate that Caltrans can use foreign steel on the bridge only if its cost is at least 25% less than domestic steel. In this case, the difference is only 23%, so the state must go with domestic steel. That added $400 million to the price tag.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Bay Bridge -- A photo caption in Saturday's California section with an article about reconstruction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge said it showed the eastern section of the span, which was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It showed the western section of the bridge.

At the same time, the estimated completion date for the project -- originally slated for 2006 -- has been pushed back to 2010. And many expect that deadline to be missed too.

"The whole process has taken a lot longer than anybody would've ever expected," said Joe Haraburda, president of the Oakland Metro Chamber of Commerce. "It's something that needs to be done. Let's get it done."

The Bay Bridge has always played second fiddle to the more famous Golden Gate. Though the Golden Gate's soaring, Art Deco towers are one of the world's most recognizable symbols, the Bay Bridge has a plainer appearance.

The Bay Bridge spans about 4 1/2 miles and is divided into two separate sections connecting San Francisco in the west with Oakland in the east. Bridge tunnels pierce Yerba Buena Island at the center of the bay.

The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 crippled the eastern side of the bridge. Temporary fixes were made to reopen it.

But the temblor provided the community a chance to build a more architecturally dramatic replacement that also would resist a major quake.

The new design, selected by the Bay Area Toll Authority in 1998, calls for the Oakland side of the bridge to be demolished after a new bridge is built.

The new structure will include a two-mile-long elevated roadway supported by the tower, which in an artist's drawing is illuminated by lights and a beacon on top.

The 10-lane roadway provides a clear view of the San Francisco and Oakland skylines.

Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority, said officials were fully aware of the costs involved in building an architecturally complex structure.

"There was consciousness that we would have to pay," he said. "We expected to pay. There was absolutely a strong consciousness that an architectural bridge was going to cost more. This was not ignored; it was as obvious as it could be."

San Francisco-based T.Y. Lin International was awarded the contract to design the bridge.

Critics, however, say the toll authority made a mistake by not selecting a less ambitious but more economical design.

"The construction is so laborious that it's just very expensive," said Gary Black, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley whose design for the bridge was turned down. "It's not an economical bridge."

Caltrans officials have faced repeated roadblocks since the design was chosen. Much of the project's costs have been underestimated, and few construction companies have shown interest in building the bridge because of its massive scale.

"Not a lot of companies have the financial backing to build a project like this," said Dan McElhinney, chief deputy director of Caltrans for the Oakland office.

The high steel prices that have plagued construction companies in recent years, combined with rising insurance costs for such massive projects, limit the number of companies with the resources to take on this construction, McElhinney said.

This week, the agency received only one bid to do the construction. It came from a consortium of firms: American Bridge, Nippon Steel Bridge and Fluor Corp.

Caltrans has not decided whether to accept the bid or advertise it again in hopes of attracting more construction firms.

The bridge's construction will be financed by a pool of federal and state funds set aside for bridge replacement. Caltrans officials still have to determine whether the pool can cover the latest price hikes.

The western side of the Bay Bridge -- which is being seismically retrofitted -- is nearly complete.

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