East beats West

The new Wilson Bridge flourishes, while the Bay Bridge flounders

Bridge Construction Article November 08, 2004
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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can sure sell movie tickets and popcorn. He could still use some work on the buttering-up part though.

Schwarzenegger’s mission these days is trying to kill any measure in the California state legislature that may threaten the safety of an already war-torn budget. Infrastructure projects have been placed under heavy scrutiny by the foreign-born governor, whose actions came across in clear, plain English in early October. After attempts to win over officials with an alternative fell flat, Schwarzenegger ordered a halt to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay East Span Replacement project because of $2.5 billion worth of cost overruns.

It sure is a different picture on the other side of the U.S. There stands the growth of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is currently on schedule and under budget. The Virginia DOT isn’t even close to practicing its bow, but all signs are flashing success.

And, yes, people are even lining up to see it. In fact, just a few weeks ago VDOT project manager Nick Nicholson took a small number of Iraqi engineers in for a closer look.

The impression was great, and the questions were many. One of the more intriguing foreign inquiries dealt with the design process of the bridge. According to Nicholson, the group could not understand why it took so long to finalize the plan.

Nicholson explained the reason for the length was mainly due to the public-approval process. The Iraqis couldn’t quite embrace the answer. In their country roads and bridges are built regardless of local opinion. “I tried to tell them that the taxpayers are the ones who are paying for this bridge and that’s why it was so important to deliver what they wanted. They (the Iraqi engineers) couldn’t understand that,” said Nicholson.

Democracy is beautiful—when it works. Schwarzenegger believes he can no longer afford to watch the process play out in California. At an Aug. 16 press conference he proposed a November 2004 measure asking San Francisco-Oakland Bay voters to divert money from the new Regional Measure 2 (RM 2) program to pay for the cost overruns of the East Span Replacement project. RM 2 raised tolls on the region’s seven Caltrans bridges $1, with the increase paying for future public transit and highway projects. The fiscal diversion request was rejected, and two months after taking a stand the leader essentially stomped out the next leg of construction by allowing the only bid to expire. The state hopes to either draw new bids or, in more dramatic fashion, accept a complete redesign that is less expensive.

Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. thinks the move will lead to further financial collapse. Its report revealed that seeking new offers or a redesign could delay the opening of the span by as much as four years to 2015 and lead to cost increases of as much as $310 million. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) isn’t admiring Schwarzenegger’s use of force, either. The MTC is worried about the safety of motorists traveling on the weakening old east span, and spokesman Randy Rentschler said a start from scratch is incomprehensible because the foundations of the bridge are already in place. He also believes redesigning a portion could affect the earthquake readiness of the span.

Schwarzenegger was armed with an option here. The MTC and the Bay Area legislative delegation came up with Assembly Bill 2366. The measure would have asked for the state to accept the lone construction bid while the MTC shifted toll reserves and refinanced toll bonds to cover immediate costs.

As an actor, the governor has played both a terminator and a bodyguard. I think he’s still confused at deciphering right from wrong. Cost overruns happen, but an even bigger sin is stopping a major infrastructure project. There’s no chance another bid will come in under the current design, and drawing up cheaper plans is just asking for another earthquake tragedy. Stop the tough-guy act, Mr. Schwarzenegger, accept the losses and build the best bridge possible. I can’t think of a better topping.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson, Editor in Chief<br> [email protected]
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