Tappan Zee Bridge project has lots in common with troubled Bay Bridge, but there's hope

At left, an artist's rendition of the design At left, an artist's rendition of the design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge that was selected by the state Thruway Authority. At right, work under way to demolish old ramps leading to the Bay Bridge on the Oakland, Calif. end. Photo Credit: NYnewbridge.com, California Department of Transportation

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The new Tappan Zee Bridge will replace an aging span with a new crossing that befits a mighty waterway and a wealthy metropolitan region; so will the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The consortium building the Tappan Zee bridge includes the American Bridge Company and Fluor Corp., two of the world's most respected engineering firms; so does the joint venture building a key part of the Bay Bridge.

The Bay Bridge is years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Will the Tappan Zee project wind up the same way?

Word that construction flaws might delay the Bay Bridge's scheduled opening on Labor Day cannot come as welcome news in Albany; but conversations with California officials -- and with outside experts -- suggest that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has taken steps likely to protect New York from the worst of the Bay Bridge's many ills.

Brian Conybeare, the governor’s special advisor on the Tappan Zee, declined to contrast the two projects.

Every expert interviewed about the comparison, however, cautioned that New Yorkers need to prepare for mishaps and unforeseen complications and that could delay construction and drive up costs.

"A megaproject, and the Tappan Zee is likely to be no exception to this general rule, is going to run into issues as you proceed with construction," said Will Kempton, executive director of Transportation California, a nonprofit advocacy group in Sacramento.

C. William Ibbs, an engineering professor at the University of California in Berkeley, agreed.

"There's no building a project risk-free," he said.

The two agreed, however, that the New York State Thruway Authority's "design-build" contract with Tappan Zee Constructors -- the consortium building the 3.1-mile Tappan Zee bridge -- seems to anticipate many of the pitfalls faced by Golden State leaders since they proposed a new Bay Bridge in 1989.

DESIGN-BUILD CONTRACT PROTECTS BUDGET, SCHEDULE

In a traditional public works project -- and the Bay Bridge is one -- the state or a sponsoring agency hires a firm to design a project and create blueprints for builders. The state then requests bids from contractors willing to build the project. If the design is flawed -- an argument easy for the contractor to make -- the state is often forced to increase payments to the contractors, compensating them for fixing the unforeseen problems.

The Bay Bridge is a prime example of the huge cost overruns incurred with the traditional strategy. In the 24 years since California officials began planning it, the cost of the six-mile span has risen from $1 billion to more than $6.4 billion. Initially slated to open in 2007, the Bay Bridge is now six years behind schedule, and counting.

However, experts say that the "design-build" approach underlying the Tappan Zee project should insulate the New York Thruway Authority -- and toll payers -- from any similar scenario. Under its contract, Tappan Zee Constructors is both designing and building the new bridge over the Hudson. If there should be an engineering problem in their design, the consortium will be responsible for fixing the problem, not the state.

"The contract with TZC provides for all aspects of the process to design and construct the new bridge, including how to settle disputes should they arise," said Thruway spokesman Dan Weiller.

The contract imposes fines if the builder doesn't finish work on specific milestones on time; Tappan Zee Constructors must pay $120,000 per day if the bridge doesn't open in April 2018, as scheduled.

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS ON THE BAY BRIDGE

The engineering and technical problems encountered on the Bay Bridge project have been daunting, in part because the bridge is based on an unusual design -- configured to absorb and survive the force of major earthquakes.

Hundreds of potentially bad welds have been discovered throughout the bridge, including welds on major seals crucial for seismic safety. Railings on bike paths have proved unstable, steel in a roadway has corroded, and decorative lights have failed. Most recently, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a thorough investigation of corrosion in bolts that anchor key supports, acknowledging that the review could result in a postponement of the bridge's opening.

Because the contract for the project was awarded traditionally, the state must now figure out who is to blame for the problems. Reports suggest that an Ohio company may have supplied faulty bolts to the joint venture building the Bay Bridge. But the bolts were included in specifications the state gave to the builders. The result is a tangle of claims and counter claims.

"We haven't assigned accountability for this issue yet," said Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans. "We are in the middle of resolving accountability between the design team, the owner, which is us, the builder, which is American Bridge-Fluor, and the supplier."

American Bridge declined to comment. Fluor didn't respond to inquiries. The Ohio company's bolts would not be used on the Tappan Zee, said a Cuomo spokesman.

John Fisher, an emeritus professor at Lehigh University and a member of a Caltrans' team of independent bridge specialists, said he didn't blame American Bridge and Fluor for using the bolts, or for other problems with the Bay Bridge.

"It's a unique structure," Fisher said. "I think the problems encountered probably would be encountered by anyone who tried to build a bridge of that magnitude. It's now the largest self-anchored suspension bridge in the world. Probably another one won't be built again."

By self-anchored, Fisher means that the Bay Bridge supports itself, a tricky feat of engineering. The new Tappan Zee is a cable-stayed bridge, meaning that the main cables carrying the weight of the bridge will be anchored at either end of the bridge.

Ibbs, the professor at Berkeley, suggested that the design-build approach makes it easier to assign responsibility for technical problems, when they occur, and may cut down on the number of problems that arise.

"The contractor would have had more freedom to decide what type of bolt he might have used in that situation," Ibbs said. "He might not have chosen bolts. He might have decided to weld it. The responsibility and risk of design is slightly shifted more toward the contractor in a design-build situation."

Ibbs cautioned that there will likely be wrangling over the New York project, given the massive losses a company might face in the event of a major technical failure.

"There is still owner oversight," he said.

On that score, the Thruway Authority is spending $800 million to oversee the project, including hiring HNTB Corp. to keep tabs on Tappan Zee Constructors. 

BAY BRIDGE PROJECT PARALYZED BY POLITICS

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the Bay Bridge project has to do with the delays that resulted when California politicians could not decide what to do about the damage from the 1989 quake.

Greg Lucas, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who now runs a blog about California politics, recalls that then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown spent years butting heads over the scope and aesthetics of the Bay Bridge. Brown had been governor of California, and is governor again today. Willie Brown was then a former speaker of the state Assembly. The two power brokers delayed the new bridge for years, said Lucas.

"The indictment against politicians was that they couldn't figure out what to do for a better part of a decade," he said.

The process improved in 2005, when the state established a committee of state transportation honchos to oversee the project, Lucus said. Experts say that, since leadership passed from the politicians to the committee of experts, the project has been largely on budget and on time.

In the case of the Tappan Zee project, Cuomo relied heavily on the committee-of-experts strategy from the start. He has established multiple committees of stakeholders, outside experts, and leading politicians to make recommendations on various aspects of the Tappan Zee project, including design, mass transit options and the aesthetics of the bridge, down to its color and texture.

Another pitfall encountered in California had to do with labor relations. California leaders sought to use cheaper Chinese-made steel in the Bay Bridge, drawing the ire of American labor unions. In contrast, Cuomo insisted on American steel from the start. He signed a comprehensive agreement with New York unions limiting overtime and banning strikes during the construction of the new bridge, in return agreeing to generous salaries and perks.

While granting that New Yorkers -- and Cuomo in particular -- may have done a good job of anticipating the problems likely to be encountered with a megaproject, Will Kempton could not resist offering some advice to Cuomo: If and when an embarrassing development occurs in connection with the new bridge, be honest about it and aggressive in explaining the situation.

The public will understand, given the scope of the job, said Kempton, the head of the nonprofit in Sacramento.

"Public agencies need to be better able to defend themselves with respect to these sorts of issues," Kempton said. "There is a tendency to hunker down and take the beating."

 

TALE OF THE TAPE: THE TWO BRIDGES

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Tappan Zee Bridge

@Newsday

 

• Original bridge opened in 1955, at a cost of $80.8 million

• Current estimated cost of replacement: $3.9 billion

• Scheduled opening date: April 2018

• Length: 3.1 miles

• Traffic: 138,000 vehicles per day

• Number of peregrine falcons: two adults, three chicks

 

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

 

• Originally bridge opened in 1936, at a cost of $77.6 million

• Current estimated cost of replacement: $6.4 billion

• Scheduled opening date: September 2, 2013

• Length: 6 miles

• Traffic: 280,000 vehicles per day

• Number of peregrine falcons: two adults, four chicks

Sources: New York State Thruway Authority, Bay Bridge Public Information Office, California Department of Transportation

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