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From a pretty big project to an enormous one – a brief history of our $6.4 billion bridge

Isabel Angell

The story of the new Bay Bridge really begins in 1989, with the Loma Prieta earthquake. A lot of things collapsed -- including a section of the bridge’s eastern span. California officials realized they needed to do something drastic to protect during the next inevitable quake.

“They talked about renovating the existing bridge and that was going to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” says William Ibbs.

Ibbs teaches construction management at UC Berkeley. He’s also an engineer, and has worked as a consultant on huge infrastructure projects around the world. He’s studied the Bay Bridge, and has some thoughts on how it went from a pretty big infrastructure project to an enormous one.

“The longer it takes to build something, the much more expensive it becomes,” explains Ibbs. It’s a phrase that could almost be a mantra for the megaproject: Time equals money. And in large-scale construction projects, time equals a lot of money.

In the beginning

After the ‘89 quake, Caltrans rebuilds the collapsed span in a month.  But it’s a short term fix. Over the next few years, they develop a plan to retrofit all the state’s major bridges, including the eastern span. By now it’s 1994.

There’s another devastating quake, this time in Los Angeles, centered over Northridge. Ibbs says that prompted engineers to take another look at the Bay Bridge.

“About 1995 they decided it would be prudent to rebuild, or to build a new structure rather than fix the old one,” he says.

In 1997, the state legislature passes a bill funding that replacement. They estimate the new span will cost $1.3 billion. The proposal is for a simple skyway, like the San Mateo Bridge.

“Just a plain vanilla type of structure,” Ibbs says. “What was called ‘the viaduct.’ Or what some of our elected leaders disparagingly referred to as ‘the freeway on stilts.’”

This “plain vanilla” bridge does not go over well. Politicians pan it. East Bay residents think they deserve something better.

“People decided they waited some iconic structure in the East Bay, to kind of go with the Golden Gate Bridge,” Ibbs says.

There is an option for a prettier bridge -- if the region raises tolls and picks up the tab on the difference. In 1997, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, decides to go for it. They scrap the original plan and announce that they’ll choose a new, more aesthetically pleasing design.

Now, things get complicated. The mayors of Oakland and San Francisco at the time both have things they want. In Oakland, Mayor Jerry Brown doesn’t think the design in pretty enough. And in San Francisco, Mayor Willie Brown contested the alignment of the new bridge on Yerba Buena Island -- he thought it would interfere with plans to build an entertainment center and casino. And the US Navy and Coast Guard wanted to preserve an historic structure: the house of WWII’s Admiral Nimitz.  

All in all?

“We really lost about two years of construction because of the wrangling over the alignment and touchdown on Yerba Buena Island,” Ibbs says.

And remember…

“The longer it takes to build something, the much more expensive it becomes.”

It’s all about the support costs, Ibbs explains.

“All the inspectors, all the bookkeepers, all the engineers that you need to keep around for this project get paid on a day by day basis,” he says. “So if you extend the project by 30 days, 60 days, 180 days, you’re adding up the costs.”

A signature span

Okay. First stage of wrangling over. It’s 1998. MTC chooses a design for the bridge: the self-anchored suspension. It’s set to be the longest span of its kind in the world, with a 525-foot tower. A signature span.

Caltrans estimates that adding this span will cost an extra 141 million dollars, bringing the total cost to about a billion and a half. Tolls go up a dollar to cover the extra costs. The bridge is supposed to be done by 2004.

But fast forward a few years, to 2001, and construction still hasn’t started. And somehow, the cost has doubled to 2.6 billion dollars. Caltrans tells the legislature the bridge won’t be done until 2007.

Hold on. Before construction even started, the cost of the replacement span doubled. How does that happen? Ibbs gives one explanation.

“When you go to build something for the first time, you don’t have a track record for estimating, you don’t have a good reference point to estimating the cost of this one-of-a-kind event,” he says. “So one legitimate explanation is that people just thought they could do the project and cheaper, this one-of-a-kind structure faster and cheaper than they really could.”

There’s a name for this: it’s called optimism bias. And it affects big projects big projects the world over...again, and again, and again.

“The more they dug into it,” Ibbs says, “they realized there were a lot of complications.”

Complications like bickering politicians. Nationwide increases in construction costs.

“And the economy was very hot at that time and contractors had a lot of opportunities to bid on other projects.”

Long story short, the legislature passes a second funding bill… on September 14th, 2001. Ibbs says 9/11 also had a big impact on the cost of the bridge.

“After the terrorist attack September 11, 2001 the insurance industry was on the hook to pay for the damages associated with the world trade center towers,” he says.

So they start going around and identifying other high-profile projects, like the Bay Bridge -- and raise the cost of insurance to cover the bigger risks.

The extra insurance costs, plus the time that comes with a new design, tack another quarter billion onto the project.

Back to square one?

It’s 2004. There have been more delays. Steel prices have shot up almost 50 percent, and a booming economy has pushed construction costs even higher. In just two years, the bridge cost has doubled again -- to $5.6 billion.

The single biggest culprit for the jump is the signature span. Caltrans gets just one bid for the project: A $1.4 billion estimate. That’s almost 800 million more than the 2001 estimate of the span’s cost. So they have to go back to the legislature and ask for more money.

But by now, Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor. And he calls the whole design into question. The signature span, he says, is just too expensive.
Remember, the bridge was supposed to cost ju
st over a billion dollars and be finished in 2004. Instead, it’s five times that price and construction has barely started. So instead of moving forward, the legislature sends Caltrans back to the drawing board.

They go back to reviewing alternate designs, including that original simple skyway.

But the same problems come right back-- local politicians do not want a viaduct bridge. Remember the ‘freeway on stilts’?

Finally, in the summer of 2005, they reach a compromise. Signature span stays; regional bridge tolls go up another dollar to pay for it. New cost estimate: $6.3 billion.

A Bay Area icon

Finally, construction starts on the signature span. It seems so real, the Golden State Warriors basketball team even incorporates it into their new logo.

The bridge starts to take shape and become a part of the region’s skyline. And over the next seven years, the cost estimate increases just 100 million dollars. That’s not to say there aren’t problems…cue the bolt fiasco.

But today, the bridge is open. And for the record, Ibbs says he has total faith in its safety. So does the Federal Highway Administration, and other independent engineering firms. And they all agree the old bridge is very unsafe.

The bridge’s story isn’t over. The bolts need their permanent fix, and the project isn’t technically over until the last bit of foundation from the old bridge has been carted away. So while $6.4 billion is the total projected cost it’s possible the price tag could still rise.

Which brings up the last, and perhaps most important question: who paid for all this? And the answer is, for the most part, the residents of Bay Area. By the time we’re done paying off the bridge, tolls will have covered almost 70 percent of the total cost -- nearly $4.5 billion.

Although he doesn’t personally think the bridge is worth the steep price, Ibbs says there’s more than one way to look at that cost.

“I think when we get 10 years out, 20 years out, we’re going to look at this bridge and say this is a remarkable engineering work,” Ibbs says. “It will rival the Golden Gate in terms of appearance.”

The new bridge is supposed to last 150 years -- so we have until at least 2163 to decide if it was all worth it.