May 16: Unparalleled bridge, unprecedented cost

McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama/SF Public Press
 — Dec 8 2009 – 1:50pm

It’s being built in China. 
It’s taken twice as long as expected.
And it will cost double what you’ve been told.//

When completed, the new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will be not only the most complex engineering feat in California history, but also the most expensive, with a cost never subjected to public scrutiny.

Although today’s price tag stands at $6.3 billion, the figure accounts for only salaries and hard materials—things like concrete and steel and cranes. When all is said and done, the new Bay Bridge will wind up costing tax- and toll-payers more than $12 billion—a figure that leaves even the officials in charge “staggered.”

Much of the difference comes from interest and other financing charges—money that commuters will be paying off until at least 2049. Little attention has been paid to billions of dollars not included in the direct construction cost projections published in glossy public reports.

Why the price has skyrocketed is a tale of politics, bureaucratic bumbling, and unforeseen construction problems—all classic ingredients of California public works projects. It is a tale of obscure but powerful agencies, legislative bickering, and four successive governors grappling with a project so massive and complex that one consultant suggested the human mind might be unable to grasp, or accept, “the magnitude of the undertaking and the time and resources required to complete it.”

While public attention is focused on something new and grand, replacing the aging and increasingly unreliable existing east span with an iconic edifice that will define the San Francisco Bay into the next century, it is easy to overlook other aspects of the Bay Bridge project that contribute to spiraling costs. Caltrans officials are expected to announce this week that problems in Asia, where the majority of the bridge is being manufactured, will push those costs even higher. Among those are problems with fabrication and shipping of critical steel components in China that could add $100 million or more to the final price tag, and international bickering over design drawings and blueprints that could ultimately cost tens of millions more.

It is impossible at this point to account for every dollar spent on the Bay Bridge project so far. While nearly $500 million has been paid for seismic retrofitting of the west span and construction of a new west approach—work already completed—bills continue to roll in for the east span which is expected to take until 2013 to complete. Public records show that through September, $3.8 billion in expenses have been incurred on the east span construction and at least $1.9 billion more in expenses are expected soon.