Bay Bridge

Incentives for Bay Bridge contractors raise concern

A Bay Area lawmaker expressed frustration Friday about a response from a top transportation official to concerns about the influence of incentives to contractors building the new Bay Bridge.

"The contractors will receive an additional $20 million incentive payment if they reach a vaguely explained 'readiness for seismic safety opening' determination," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, in an interview.

"I would hate to see Caltrans write a $20 million check on Labor Day and have the bridge open several months later because of other problems."

Levine co-authored a request from 14 legislators to Steve Heminger, chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, voicing concerns that incentives might push construction too fast, jeopardizing safety on the troubled span. The bridge faces problems with broken bolts, corroded tendons, foundation-testing lapses and faulty welds.

Heminger, who also heads the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said in a letter to the legislators that incentives do not drive the opening date.

The $20 million payment would be based on the completion of certain major structural, mechanical, electrical and paving work, among other items.

The contractor could receive the money even if the span fails to open as scheduled, just as it had received earlier incentives.

"Whether the new east span is opened to traffic on Labor Day or at a later date will be determined exclusively by whether it is safe to do so," Heminger wrote. A decision on the opening date is expected July 10.

"If the bridge is 'seismic safety opening' ready, then why would we not open the bridge?" Levine said. "Are these incentives helping to open the bridge safely, or are they adding cost without value?"

Heminger, who serves on the oversight committee with the heads of Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission, noted that the contractor would be required to pay the state up to $125 million if it failed to complete work before Nov. 30.

Levine said that like the incentive programs, disincentive penalties could backfire if they push work too fast.

Call The Bee's Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.