A troubled bridge over Calif. waters

Some see costly Bay Bridge project as a Big Dig in sky.

At long last, San Francisco Bay was poised to get its final signature span. For 60 years, the east span of the bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland has stood as the oft-ignored stepsister of its graceful kin.

Unlike the west span of the Bay Bridge, it is no postcard backdrop of San Francisco. Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, it is no international icon. It is an awkward web of cantilevered steel, and its only moment of fame came when a section collapsed during the 1989 earthquake.

In the decade since, a bold vision to replace the bridge emerged: a single white tower, suspending the thin ribbon of an eight-lane highway beneath arcing cables. All that remained was to sort out who would build it.

Then, last month, one lone bid came in - at $1.8 billion, more than twice what was expected - and the bridge became a striking example for the chronic cost overruns of modern American megaprojects.

To be sure, the cost of building massive structures has spiraled beyond expectation since the days of the pyramids. But the fact that the US hasn't significantly upgraded its infrastructure since the 1960s has driven many construction companies into oblivion. Moreover, insurance costs in post-Sept. 11 America have shortened the list further. The result is a new economic reality as a lack of corporate competition drives up costs for major public projects from Washington State to the Beltway.

"The scale of the projects is thinning out the bidders," says Doug MacDonald, secretary of transportation of Washington State, who has studied cost overruns. "This is when you see some of the impact of this."

For the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, the latest bid merely adds to a history of false starts and missed estimates. Indeed, with Boston's Big Dig wrapping up, the eastern span is fast becoming the national poster child for megaprojects run amok.

In 1996, California voters approved $650 million for seismic retrofits in California. Today, the California Department of Transportation has a budget of $5 billion to finish that job - which includes replacing the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. The bid received last month, however, would again put the project over budget - this time by an estimated $1 billion - before construction even began.

Reasons behind cost overruns

Many reasons for the overruns could be taken from the textbook of public-works projects gone awry. Local politics have added delays. State politics favor more-expensive domestic steel. And critics say contractors have gamed the system, persuading officials to build the most expensive bridge possible.

Without question, the new bridge would be a feat of engineering. It solves a problem that engineers weren't able to unravel when the bridge was built in the 1930s. The floor of the eastern side of the bay is covered in 300 feet of alluvial muck. So while the western section of the Bay Bridge, which runs from San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island, could be a classic suspension bridge founded on bedrock, the section from the Yerba Buena to Oakland was simply steel truss supported by poles of Douglas fir driven into sand.

The new bridge solves the problem by putting all the load on a single tower near Yerba Buena Island. The finished effect would be striking. But the inordinately complex plans would require massive amount of steel.

Tangled web of politics and steel

"The more complicated a project, the more unique it is, and the difficulty of permitting all [plans] seem to be reasonably good predictors of overruns," says David Luberoff, coauthor of "Megaprojects."

The Bay Bridge, he notes, has all three.

Add to that the shrinking number of capable companies, and bids can bust open the biggest budgets. In Maryland, officials originally received only one bid to build the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in 2002 - $400 million over estimates.

In Washington State, Secretary MacDonald has instituted a new program aimed at eliminating overruns. The idea is to engage contractors to ensure that there are a maximum number of bidders, and to be open.

"You've got to keep the public apprised of the reality of these things," says Mr. MacDonald.

That can be difficult - especially when an honest appraisal threatens to stop a project at the outset. But it can also save public confidence in a project. "If you don't know [the cost], say 'I don't know,'" says Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transportation planning agency. "Don't put a number on it."

Here, officials have 60 days to respond to the $1.8 billion bid. One option is to abandon the single-tower plan and adopt a simpler design, though the cost of resulting delays make that unlikely. Caltrans could also tweak the project to make it more attractive to bidders and then rebid it.

Either way, if the cost comes in over $800 million, Caltrans will have to ask the state Legislature for money.

Says Mr. Rentschler: "It's going to be tough."

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