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16 years after quake, Bay Bridge project poised to begin

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Sixteen years after a major earthquake collapsed a portion of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, construction of a sturdier replacement span is finally poised to begin after years of bickering about aesthetics and skyrocketing costs that drew comparisons to Boston's Big Dig.

Under legislation signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last week, tolls will rise at bridges across the Bay Area to help finance the long-delayed project, now estimated to cost at least $6.3 billion -- nearly six times the original cost.

With the legislation's signing, the governor resolved a dispute that divided the region and intensified wrangling among the Republican governor and powerful Democrats from the Bay Area.

''We now have a plan that will build a safe and modern bridge that will become another great landmark here in the Bay Area," Schwarzenegger said during a ceremony in Oakland that used the bridge, and the decidedly more glorious Golden Gate deep in the distance, as a backdrop.

The legislation, brokered over the past few months, would retain the unique design of the replacement span, a self-anchored suspension bridge championed by Bay Area civic leaders but opposed by Schwarzenegger, who had blamed the design for the massive cost overruns.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, centered down the coast from San Francisco, collapsed a portion of the upper deck of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, killing one woman. The segment was repaired, but specialists said the bridge, opened in 1936, probably would not survive another major earthquake.

Budgeted at $1.1 billion in 1997, the new bridge is scheduled for completion in 2012.

To pay for the project, the local transportation commission will float bonds, using higher tolls to pay off the debt. A $1 toll increase, from $3 to $4, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2007, at seven Bay Area bridges. Tolls at the Golden Gate Bridge, which is overseen by a separate agency, will not increase.

The legislation relieves the state of any additional financial obligations for the new bridge, as well as maintenance of the region's seven state-owned toll bridges.

''The Bay Area is finally guaranteed a seismically safe bridge to drive on. Sixteen years has been long enough," said San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young, who represents Alameda County's 14 cities, including Oakland, on the regional transportation commission.

Even critics of the project were pleased, noting that delays were adding as much as $400,000 a day to the bridge's ballooning cost, according to the state Transportation Department.

California officials have been careful not to compare the bridge project with the spiraling cost of the Big Dig, which grew from initial estimates of $3 billion to its current cost of $14.6 billion. But the Big Dig was invoked in public testimony as a cautionary tale about how public works projects can ''go awry," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, a watchdog group based in Oakland.

''We're already at the point where the Big Dig was. The [bridge] project was expected to cost about a billion dollars. Now the bridge is expected to cost at least five times more," Cohen said. ''There was a fair amount of gross incompetence that led us down this path. We got beyond the point of no return . . . and only learned recently about the true magnitude of the cost overruns."

Randy Rentschler, the legislative manager of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission said, ''The fact that [the bridge] is being compared to the Big Dig, we're not oblivious to that.

''The fact is that we are in a beautiful area, and people are going to be willing to pay a little bit extra for a beautiful bridge," he said, referring to the $1 toll increase.

Rising prices for cement and steel have added to the project's cost, but the governor and other critics have mostly blamed rising costs on the bridge's unusual design.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is actually two bridges -- an elegant double-suspension span anchored in San Francisco, and the less-stylish Oakland span, a bulky-looking cantilever bridge that will be replaced.

Schwarzenegger wanted a less flamboyant replacement -- a 4-mile skyway extending from the mud flats of Oakland. Critics called the proposal a ''freeway on stilts."

''Just because a skyway appeared to be simpler, it doesn't mean it is simpler," or dramatically less expensive to build, Rentschler said, noting that new engineering studies would have been needed for the skyway.

Civic leaders across the bay from San Francisco had envisioned a signature bridge that could approach, perhaps rival, the aesthetic flash of its storied sister bridge.

In 1998, the California Department of Transportation, at the urging of Bay Area officials, selected a first-of-its-kind suspension bridge that would be anchored by a single 530-foot tower with cables fanning down to the deck.

While engineering a quake-safe bridge was the ultimate goal, the visual design was significant as well, said Young.

''Does it matter what the bridge looks like? It's like asking somebody in New York if it matters what the Brooklyn Bridge looks like, or what the replacement for the World Trade Center will look like, or asking people in Paris if it matters what the Eiffel Tower looks like," Young said.

''We're from the Bay Area, one of the most beautiful places. I'm sure [the new bridge] will put its imprint on the Bay Area. It's our bridge, it's the signature bridge we wanted."

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