North-South Gap Widens on Bay Bridge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another north-versus-south showdown is brewing between California lawmakers over the long-delayed seismic retrofit of the historic Bay Bridge, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The feud contrasts the two modes of transport that define the two regions of the state: the graceful bridge span connecting San Francisco and Oakland and the sprawling freeway system that courses across Southern California.

Like warring siblings arguing over their share of the weekly allowance, both sides are trading barbs and stamping their feet over who deserves the money most.

To pay spiraling repair costs from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, Bay Area officials want legislators to increase the region's share of federal bridge replacement funds from $557 million to $1.3 billion and to approve a $1-billion loan from the state highway account.

But Southern California lawmakers complain that the plan comes at the expense of their region's motorists, siphoning critical funds from transit projects in Los Angeles and Orange counties as well as San Diego and the Inland Empire.

Caltrans Warns Delay Will Just Run Up Tab

While regional funding battles are not unprecedented, such fights have rarely been along transportation lines due to laws mandating a 60-40 split in transit funding between south and north.

As lawmakers dicker, Caltrans officials insist a funding solution for the nation's busiest toll bridge must be found soon to avoid further cost overruns in a project already years behind schedule.

A miffed state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has compared Bay Area transportation officials to well-heeled cousins who continue to dun relatives for loans.

Murray says state taxpayers already provided $800 million in funding for the project in 1996--in exchange for a promise that the Bay Area would foot the rest of the bill by extending a $1 toll surcharge until the bridge is paid for.

"The whole point of having a bridge with tolls is for those tolls to pay for the bridge," he said. "I just think there are ways to do this without asking the entire state to pony up the rest. After awhile, you just have to tell that needy relative that you're all out of cash."

L.A. County Stands to Lose $245 Million

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials estimate that the Bay Bridge funding plan would cost Los Angeles County alone more than $245 million. The potentially delayed projects include carpool lanes on the Golden State Freeway between the Hollywood and Ventura freeways, and lighting, bus stop and parking improvements at transit stations from Long Beach to Santa Clarita.

Orange County could suffer a $27-million loss over two years.

"We're not saying there's no need to retrofit that bridge; we just don't think we should have to pay for it," said David Yale, director of capital planning and programming for the MTA in Los Angeles. "There are some very serious impacts across the rest of the state that need to be known."

Bay Area officials counter that the bridge--which is owned and operated by Caltrans--is entitled to all the state funding it needs.

They say their region's motorists have rejected any notion of extending the $1 surcharge--half of the $2 bridge toll--beyond its present expiration date of 2007.

"This is the classic old north-versus-south tug-of-war, with the people down there complaining that a project here is being bulldozed through at their expense," said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland).

"But this bridge is part of a state highway--a state project run by a state agency. It's my assumption that if you design the house and are responsible for building the house, you're going to pay for it as well."

P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, said: "It's shortsighted and parochial for Southern Californians to say, 'This bridge isn't ours.' It's not a legitimate way for state legislators to view a project as critical to California as the Bay Bridge."

The Bay Area in October marked the 11th anniversary of the 7.1 magnitude temblor that collapsed a 50-foot section of the eight-mile double-decker bridge. The 63-year-old span handles 280,000 vehicles a day and is the region's workhorse.

Embarrassed Bay Area officials blame years of delay on acrimonious stalemates and petty turf battles. In 1996, the estimated cost to replace the bridge's eastern span was $650 million. Officials acknowledge that that figure has risen to $2.4 billion. Meanwhile, the price tag for refurbishing the western span and four other area bridges rose nearly $1 billion, bringing the total to $4.6 billion.

Caltrans officials have an alternative plan they say "will have negligible impacts" on Southern California projects. Under that plan, the entire Bay Bridge cost overrun would be paid for by indefinitely maintaining the $1 toll surcharge--without loans or increasing Northern California's share of the state's federal allocation funds.

"We must move forward with this project and we must move forward now," said Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo. "We want to award the first contracts this year. The time has come to act."

However, the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which coordinates funding for the region's transportation projects, rejects the idea of raising bridge tolls.

MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said the state has already spent money to shore up other toll bridges across California, and now it is the Bay Area's turn. He added that Bay Area commuters have already contributed $1.4 billion through toll surcharges, and enough is enough.

"Are we a single state or not?" he asked. "The last time I checked, coastal communities like Manhattan Beach are willing to help pay for snow removal in Big Bear. That's the way big states work."

State Mandates a 60-40 Funds Split

Murray says Bay Area officials want to sidestep the state-mandated 60-40 south-north split of transportation funding. The breakdown is based on population figures.

"They want to take the money right off the top and ignore the conventional breakdown," he said. "And for every dollar they take off the top, 60 cents comes out of our hide."

Critics also say that greedy Bay Area officials are using the image of the Bay Bridge to amass funding for other less picturesque projects. The package the region has requested will also provide $350 million for unanticipated expenses, leaving an additional $40 million a year for other traffic projects to ease congested bridges, they say.

"They're trying to inflate the price of the Bay Bridge project to legitimize additional moneys," said one official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. "At end of the day, there's a pot of gold they can use for regional projects."

North Notes It Helped Fix I-10 After '94 Quake

Perata says Southern Californians have short memories and have conveniently forgotten how the north helped pay for repairs to the Santa Monica Freeway following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Those repairs cost $15 million.

"When we were asked to divert state money to fix I-10, we never said, 'The heck with them. That freeway is the problem of the rich people in Santa Monica.' But that's what they're saying to us," Perata said.

"This is a project the entire state is just going to have to pay for. After all, this isn't just a couple of nameless overpasses we're talking about. This is a bridge known throughout the world. Like Yosemite, it's a drawing card for California, all of California."

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