Fifteen years ago this month, while the Giants and the A’s warmed up for Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck Northern California. Centered in the mountains between Santa Cruz and San Jose, the magnitude 7.1 temblor killed 62 people, the majority of whom were caught in the collapse of a freeway in Oakland.

Less tragically, but maybe more worrisome, the earthquake cause a portion of the upper deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to collapse. Caltrans put the Bay Bridge back together quickly, but follow-up studies soon identified hundreds of bridges across California that were vulnerable to collapse. Nearly all of the structures have been seismically upgraded or replaced since then, including three other toll bridges in the Bay Area, the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.

The major exception is the eastern span of Bay Bridge —the very bridge that failed during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Although the current schedule calls for a new bridge to open in early 2011, even that date — more than two decades after the deadly earthquake — appears to be as squishy as the fill lining the bay.

The Bay Bridge is the region’s workhorse, carrying about 280,000 vehicles per day. The plan is to retrofit the western span between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco (work is mostly complete) and build an entirely new eastern bridge between the island and Oakland. Bay Area officials insisted on making the new bridge a “signature” structure. Engineers have designed a Self-Anchored Cable Suspension (SAS) bridge connecting to a “skyway” that reaches Oakland. The seismic upgrade project, however, has been problematic from the beginning.

The latest round of troubles began in May, when Caltrans received bids for the single tower that is the hallmark of the proposed bridge. Actually, Caltrans received only one bid — for $1.4 billion using foreign steel, or $1.8 billion with domestic steel. Caltrans had estimated the contract to be worth $740 million.

Immediately, Caltrans began re-examining project costs. In August, Caltrans issued a report the pegged the cost of a new eastern span at $5.1 billion — up from $2.6 billion only three years earlier and up from $1.3 billion in 1997. Bechtel Infrastructure Corporation, working for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), corroborated Caltrans’ newest estimate. Moreover, Caltrans and Bechtel concluded that seeking new bids or changing the design would only delay the project by one to four years and save little, if any, money.

The reasons for the quadrupling of estimated costs are myriad: A fancy bridge that is not easy to construct; poor original estimates by Caltrans, which omitted inflation and contingency factors; a rapid rise in materials cost; and industry consolidation. Meanwhile, the number of public agencies and officials willing to accept responsibility for the mess is nil. Caltrans and the Schwarzenegger administration blame the elaborate bridge design and factors beyond the government’s control. The MTC and Bay Area lawmakers point out that Caltrans has been in charge of the project since Day 1.

“Fundamentally, it’s the full and complete responsibility of the state Department of Transportation, by law and by practice,” MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said of the seismic project. Still, Rentschler conceded that MTC has been “heavily involved on the policy side.” In fact, Caltrans let MTC pick the design.

Where the project is headed is uncertain. The single bid for the tower from a joint venture of American Bridge, Nippon Steel Bridge and Fluor Corporation was scheduled to expire on September 30 (a few days after CP&DR’s printing deadline). Because the state does not have enough money to let the contract, it was expected that the Schwarzenegger administration would ask for a bid extension to allow state lawmakers to develop a funding solution.

“If there’s no funding plan in place for that tower, we can’t award the contract,” said Caltrans spokesman David Anderson. But, he added, “It wouldn’t be financially sound to rebid the contract.”

While an extension of the bid may be the administration’s preferred alternative, however, it is anything but a sure bet that the bridge builders will stick to the price they quoted in May, especially considering the continuing increase in steel prices. [EDITOR'S NOTE: On September 30, the administration allowed the bid to expire and officials said they would explore alternative bridge designs.]

When Caltrans published its most recent report, Gov. Schwarzenegger essentially declared the problem to be the Bay Area’s. He proposed giving the project to the Bay Area Toll Authority (an arm of MTC) and letting that agency siphon funds from other regional transportation projects to pay for the bridge cost overruns. The governor’s proposal also called for a regional ballot measure that would ask voters to shift one-third of the current $3 toll on Bay Area bridges from other transportation projects to the seismic work. Schwarzenegger even tried to stir regional rivalries in an effort to win Southern California lawmakers’ support.

The MTC and Bay Area legislators responded in the final week of the legislative session with a stop-gap measure that would have authorized the Toll Authority to provide financing in order to raise enough cash for Caltrans to let the contract. However, the Legislature adjourned on August 28 without approving any fiscal plan.

The governor’s approach infuriated Bay Area officials. Their ire rose further when Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak said that the Legislature’s failure to adopt a long-term financing strategy meant “construction will not go forward.”

New state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We have always been willing and continue to be willing to accept our fair share of the responsibility. We’ve always paid half [with bridge tolls]. But we can’t pay half when Caltrans can’t control costs.

In mid-September, the California Transportation Commission reviewed the situation but offered no solution.

“Until the Legislature comes back in session, there really is no venue to figure out how to raise the money,” the MTC’s Rentschler said. In the meantime, MTC has urged Caltrans to award the contract. Bay Area officials offer Bechtel’s conclusion as support.

“Caltrans’ analysis indicates that if achieving seismic safety for the motoring public is the primary objective, awarding the current bid is the most effective option,” Bechtel concluded. “Further, Caltrans’ comparative evaluation indicates that there appears to be little opportunity for significant cost savings by rebidding the current design or by redesigning the current project to a cable-stayed system bridge. The review of Caltrans’ comparative assessment of these options and associated assumptions indicates that Caltrans’ conclusions are reasonable.”

Metropolitan Transportation Commission:
Caltrans tollbridge seismic safety retrofit program report: