Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Bee file, 2012

The new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge can be seen on the right. Concerns about bolts, welds and other problems could delay its opening.

Editorial: Don't let incentives decide bridge opening

Published: Friday, Jun. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A

State transportation officials must decide by July 10 whether they can meet the scheduled Labor Day weekend opening for the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It is a decision that obviously must be driven by safety considerations – not by financial incentives offered to contractors working on the bridge.

Worried that incentives may trump safety, 14 Bay Area legislators signed a letter to the chair of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee asking for "detailed and specific information about the financial incentives that exist" to meet the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 Labor Day weekend bridge opening target.

Legislators also asked which companies potentially benefit from incentives and for "a timeline of the dates, amounts and work completed that are timed to these incentives," as well as the reasons for them and when they were offered.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, first posed the question in a briefing transportation officials held last week for the Bay Area Legislative caucus. His goal, he told The Bee's editorial board, is "transparency."

Given the numerous construction problems that have been uncovered by The Bee's Charles Piller, Levine said, the public needs greater confidence that financial incentives are not driving the decision on opening the bridge to meet some arbitrary deadline.

Financial incentives that encourage contractors to complete projects on time and within budget are not necessarily bad. In 2010, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission appropriated an additional $293 million in incentive payments to be paid to the prime Bay Bridge contractors if the long-delayed bridge was completed this year.

Still, given all the recent construction problems uncovered – including faulty bolts, testing lapses and welding flaws, among other things – the opening day target has to take a back seat to ensuring that those problems have been resolved.

No one doubts the new span is safer than the earthquake-damaged bridge it will replace and that thousands drive across every day. But if the construction flaws identified require major fixes, it would be prudent for the state to make those repairs before the new bridge is in use, rather than after. Opening the bridge prematurely and then being forced to make major repairs after the traffic starts to flow could end up costing the state a lot more over the long run.

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