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Foes in Bay Area Bridge Dispute Meet in Middle

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bay Area leaders Friday announced a compromise on what the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will look like and who will pay for it, ending a six-month standoff that polarized the state and threatened to further delay a project that had ballooned past $6 billion.

In a pact that still awaits legislative approval, both sides made concessions.

The state agreed to kick in twice what it had originally offered for the seismic retrofit of the bridge’s eastern span, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The governor gave up his suggestion -- strongly opposed by local leaders -- that the elegant single-tower suspension design already contracted out be replaced by a dull flat skyway.

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But Bay Area motorists will also pay more in the form of a $1 increase in tolls on all the region’s state-owned bridges beginning in 2007. Bay Area motorists approved one toll hike years ago to cover the costs, but a $3.5-billion shortfall must still be plugged.

“We’re moving forward, finally, and that is good news,” said state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who had pushed to maintain the original design and wrest a larger contribution from the state.

“The Bay Area is getting the bridge it wanted, the bridge that it paid for, the bridge that most experts say is the one that is going to be the fastest, least expensive to construct,” he said. “It’s a reasonable balance, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, or north or south in the state, it’s going to be seen as an appropriate solution.”

Schwarzenegger put the brakes on the 1.9-mile bridge project last summer as cost overruns mounted. But it was his proposal last December for the design that critics likened to a “freeway on stilts” that triggered the fierce standoff.

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A new design and a change to the financing -- approved through state legislation -- would have to come in the form of new legislation. What shaped up was a California north-south squabble.

Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said that although the governor still believed the skyway was the way to go, he agreed to the deal to get the bridge built and pave the way for other much-needed transportation projects statewide.

“Beyond getting a safe bridge for the Bay Area as quickly as possible and at a reasonable cost, he wanted to make sure taxpayers were saved from future cost increases and that other much-needed transportation projects would not be negatively impacted,” Sollitto said.

Bay Area officials had blamed the California Department of Transportation for the bulk of the overruns and said the state should pay, adding that the bridge serves motorists and commercial traffic from throughout the nation.

State officials countered that it was the elaborate design and local squabbling that prompted delays and consequent overruns. Southern California political and business leaders, meanwhile, blasted proposals to strip transportation funds from their region to complete one exorbitant project hundreds of miles away.

Even these critics were conciliatory -- though cautious -- Friday.

“This is a positive step,” said Brendan Huffman, director of public policy for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. “However, the final version of the bill needs to protect transportation funds for the nation’s busiest county.... The Legislature might decide to do something that’s more generous to the Bay Area. We have to keep an eye on it.”

A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), an outspoken proponent of the design featuring a single spire-like tower, said the deal announced Friday ended a vexing political battle with no clear winner or loser.

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“Two groups who were both very stubborn about the design they wanted for that bridge were able to meet in the middle,” said spokeswoman Alicia Dlugosh. The Bay Area gets to keep the design it wanted all along, but motorists here have to absorb a dollar increase in the bridge toll.

“Still, we got the governor’s office to chip in with double the amount they were planning on.”

The agreement, which still must be approved by the Legislature, means the state will contribute an additional $330 million to Bay Area projects on top of the $300 million the governor’s office had offered for tearing down the old span.

On top of that, the increased tolls -- combined with refinancing of the existing tolls -- will enable officials to leverage $2.9 billion in new bond financing, said an aide to Torlakson.

As part of the deal, the Bay Area Transportation Authority would also take charge of the region’s state toll-bridge revenue. Southern California no longer has toll bridges, and the Bay Area has long wanted the authority to decide how the money raised here should be spent.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Sollitto said the Legislature’s lack of support killed the governor’s idea to replace the signature span with a plainer alternative, so he decided to switch gears on the project.

Torlakson -- who hopes to move legislation to the governor’s desk in the coming weeks -- declined to criticize the effect of the governor’s intervention on the project’s cost, saying, “It’s time to pull together.”

Work was stopped and started on the portion now under construction several times since the controversy began.

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“Every day of delay adds to the cost of finishing the new bridge,” the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission lamented on its website in a recent posting.

“Every day of delay also brings us that much closer to the major earthquake that could topple the existing 70-year-old structure and cause massive loss of life,” the commission said.

Jim Wunderman, president and chief executive of the Bay Area Council, said Friday: “Lots of public money was wasted along the way here. It should be instructive in the future as to how we avoid ever going down this path again.”


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