OAKLAND — In the early 1930s, California designed and built the 8-mile Bay Bridge — west and east spans linked by the world’s biggest bore tunnel — in a mere 51/2 years. And workers did it ahead of schedule and for $78 million, well under budget.
Decades later, when the seismically shaky 2-mile eastern span needed to be replaced, California took five years just to figure out what the new span should look like and design it. Construction is taking more than twice as long, and the price tag — $6.4 billion — is 41/2 times higher than engineers estimated.
Put another way, the entire 1936 crossing cost $30,000 a foot in adjusted 2013 dollars while the shorter new span is setting back taxpayers $550,000 per foot.
Why can’t they do things the way they used to?
The reasons behind the gap say much about how big construction projects have changed from the time of the Great Depression, when creating jobs was paramount, to the modern era where worker safety and environmental laws have an enormous influence on the design, pace and cost of what is built.
“In the 1930s, the bridge itself was the thing people valued, and the engineers and contractors were in charge,” said Randy Rentschler, Metropolitan Transportation Commission government affairs director. “Since then, the values of our society have shifted 180 degrees, and it is reflected in how long it takes to get things done.”
No example is more dramatic than worker safety laws: 24 men died building the original bridge; none has perished on the new span. In the 1930s, the rule of thumb in high steel work was one death for every $1 million spent, an inconceivably high toll today.
Few dispute the need for safety regulations. But fear of litigation, environmental regulations and greater public involvement have also pushed out construction timelines and driven up costs in exchange for benefits not everyone agrees are worth the long wait.
When asked why engineers and builders 80 years ago could work so much faster, a contractor on the bridge half-jokingly described today’s construction landscape as the equivalent of asking workers to erect a bridge in record time with their hands tied behind their backs.
In the 1930s, Bay Bridge Chief Engineer Charles Purcell didn’t need four years and $155 million for an environmental impact study. And 1930s-era politicians had little or no formal say about how the bridge would look.
Purcell and his engineering colleagues chose a double suspension span for the west side and cantilevered steel trusses on the east based on three primary factors: a limited budget, San Francisco Bay geology, and navigation demands, wrote architect Donald MacDonald in “Bay Bridge: History and Design of a New Icon.”
It would be an additional 40 years before the U.S. adopted major environmental reforms such as the federal Endangered Species and Clean Water acts, which gave government agencies veto power over construction projects unless builders took steps to protect wildlife, air and water quality.
The only go-ahead Purcell needed was from the War Department, and President Herbert Hoover lent his considerable influence on that front.
Purcell also didn’t spend $11 million designing and testing a sound attenuation system, which involved pumping a dense air bubble curtain into the water to dissipate fish-killing sound pressure waves generated during pile driving.
Nor did Depression-era contractors have to:
Transplant and monitor a half-acre of marine eelgrass before dredging a construction barge channel.
Purchase tidal wetlands as mitigation for the loss of 3.4 acres of sand flats on the Oakland shore.
Build replacement nests for the cormorants roosting on the old span or attempt to lure them into their new digs with decoys and bird call recordings.
Place biological observers at the construction site or on tugboats towing barges loaded with dredged material to approved dumping sites west of the Farallon Islands.
Still, any or all of these measures can’t account for the huge cost difference between the two projects, agreed Caltrans Toll Bridge Program manager Tony Anziano. Adjusted to today’s dollars using the Consumer Price Index, the entire 1936 Bay Bridge cost $1.3 billion, compared with $6.4 billion for the new span.
Anziano attributes the gap to a combination of the more expensive regulatory and labor environments, significantly more stringent seismic requirements and political delays over design and alignment that upended the construction sequence. In 1936, 8,300 workers built the entire bridge. Nearly that many — 7,700 — are building just the 2-mile eastern span. An average union ironworker on the original bridge earned $11 a day. The California prevailing wage for an ironworker is $471.
“Individually, many of these factors don’t add up to a large percentage of the overall cost,” Anziano said. “But put it all together, and they add up.”
One of the biggest cost drivers was building a bridge strong enough to open within hours of the strongest temblor engineers predict will strike the Bay Area in the next 1,500 years.
The new span has deeper pilings, beefier foundations and some of the largest seismic stabilizers used on a bridge anywhere in the world. It also contains 70 percent more structural steel than the old bridge. This would prove particularly expensive when political delays pushed the construction schedule into a hot global steel market fueled by China’s rapid expansion.
The deepest timber piling on the old span is 235 feet — the deepest in the world at the time — but it sits in seismically vulnerable sand and mud. The new span’s 10-foot-diameter steel shafts were driven 300 feet into bedrock, at an angle to increase stability, using the world’s largest hydraulic jacks.
Unlike the 1930s, today’s engineers and contractors must erect a new bridge where one already exists and carries 270,000 vehicles a day. This has meant building expensive traffic detours on each end, including the $350 million S-curve, named after its gnarly lane twist, at Yerba Buena Island.
As to why Caltrans ever thought the hybrid replacement skyway and suspension span would open in May 2007 — a time frame the agency officially used until August 2004 — that’s “hard to explain,” Anziano conceded. “Realistically, from what we’ve experienced … it’s hard for me to see how we could have built this bridge any more quickly than we did.”
The state first pushed the date out to late 2011 and the schedule subsequently slipped an additional two years.
California Transportation Commissioner Jim Ghielmetti puts the blame squarely on the Bay Area’s choice of the relatively rare self-anchored suspension span design.
On a traditional suspension bridge, builders first erect the towers, then string the cable and hang the deck. A self-anchored bridge requires builders to put the deck into place using temporary supports. Then workers erect the tower, hang the cable and connect the deck. Lastly, the falsework is removed.
“Yes, it is iconic. But iconic costs a lot of money and time,” said Ghielmetti, president of Pleasanton-based Signature Homes.
The delay, some say, also risks lives. It has been 24 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake shook loose a 250-ton piece of the existing bridge’s upper deck and a motorist died. Engineers predict the old bridge will collapse in the next Big One.
The new bridge was set to open Sept. 3 until large steel rods used to secure seismic stabilizers snapped in March. Now, the date has been pushed out weeks or months awaiting repairs.
“Some of these delays and cost overruns are expected because these things happen in construction,” said state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord. “But not to the degree we’ve seen in the past 10 years. It’s not acceptable to put thousands of people every day at risk.”
Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773 or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.
New Bay Bridge:
Follow the money
Nowhere is the adage “Time is money!” more prophetic than on the new Bay Bridge.
Engineers’ cost estimates to replace the seismically shaky eastern half of the Bay Bridge have risen dramatically since February 1997, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson ordered it replaced rather than retrofitted.
In part, the projections grew because the bridge evolved from a no-frills crossing based on minimal design details, to a fully designed, single-tower self-anchored bridge with shoulders, lighting, architectural features, and a bicycle and pedestrian path.
Here’s the evolution of changes that affected the project’s total costs:
August 1997: Standard concrete viaduct with a cable-type suspension span but no bike lane or shoulders. (Cost $1.3 billion)
June 1998: Concrete skyway and single-tower self-anchored suspension span with shoulders, lighting, architectural features, and bicycle and pedestrian path, based on 30 percent design documents. (Cost $1.4 billion)
April 2001: Skyway fully designed and the plans for the suspension span at 65 percent. (Cost $2.6 billion)
August 2004: 100 percent designed and skyway under construction, but global steel prices skyrocket and post-911 climate drive up contractors’ costs for bonding. Caltrans admits earlier budget lacked sufficient contingency. (Cost $5.1 billion)
July 2005: Legislature shifts bridge construction management to new three-member oversight panel consisting of the executive directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, California Transportation Commission and Caltrans. (Cost $5.4 billion)
December 2007: Under new management and after the contract for the most expensive piece of the bridge (the self-anchored suspension segment) was awarded, the rate of escalation slows. (Cost $5.6 billion)
May 2013: Inflation and delays associated with the complexity of fabricating and installing the massive steel decks, coupled with broken steel anchor rods in seismic stabilizers, continue to push the cost projections up, although not at the earlier rate. (Cost $6.4 billion)
Source: Caltrans, Bay Area Toll Authority
BRIDGES’ big costs
Building a suspension bridge is expensive and takes time. Here’s a look at how the Bay Bridge compares with other suspension bridges across the world in 2013 adjusted U.S. dollars and construction time:
Bay Bridge (eastern replacement span): Oakland, 2.2 miles, expected to open late 2013, $6.4 billion, 11 years and counting.
Great Belt East Bridge: Denmark, 4.2 miles, opened 1998, $4.4 billion, 10 years.
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: New York, 2.6 miles, opened in 1964, $2.4 billion, five years and seven months.
Yeongjong Grand Bridge: South Korea, 2.7 miles, opened in 2000, $1.9 billion, five years.
Tsing Ma Bridge: China, 1.34 miles, opened 1997, $1.35 billion, five years.
Bay Bridge (original): Oakland-San Francisco, 8.25 miles, opened in 1936, $1.3 billion, three years and seven months.
George Washington Bridge: New York, 0.9 miles, opened 1931, $1.1 billion, four years.
Cooper River Bridge: South Carolina, 2.5 miles, opened in 2005, $836.9 million, four years and six months.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge: Washington, 1 mile, opened 2007, $827.7 million, five years.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge (westbound): Maryland, 4.3 miles, opened in 1973, $778.3 million, four years and six months.
Mackinac Bridge: Michigan, 5 miles, opened 1957, $583.9 million, four years.
Sunshine Skyway Bridge: Florida, 4 miles, opened in 1987, $501.5 million, five years.
Carquinez Bridge (eastbound): Vallejo-Crockett, 0.7 mile, opened in 2003, $465.9 million, four years.
Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco, 1.7 miles, opened in 1937, $439.8 million, four years and four months.
And, although not a suspension span:
Benicia Bridge (northbound): Benicia-Martinez, 1.7 miles, opened 2007, $1.4 billion, seven years.
Sources: http://usinflationcalculator.com; Caltrans; PBS “Building Big”; Bay Area Toll Authority; Wikipedia; Structurae: International Database; news research; Engineering News-Record; and state departments of transportation in New, Florida, Washington, South Carolina and Maryland