They know what they want in a new eastern Bay Bridge span, they know how to pay for it, and soon they will sign a contract to make it happen.

Now all Bay Area and state transportation officials have to do is see that the six-year, $1.43 billion project is built reasonably close to budget and on schedule.

No one is expecting smooth sailing as the one-of-a-kind, self-anchored suspension bridge is assembled to replace part of the 1936 span damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Making a 525-foot tower spring from the San Francisco Bay's deep, unstable sediment, twisting a massive cable around it and anchoring it to 1,854-foot decks that are supposed to hang from that very same cable is not expected to be easy.

The difficulty of building such a structure is probably why no one has built such a large self-anchored span — the kind that does not need the massive concrete anchorages such as the one in the middle of the Bay Bridge's western span, said C.C. Fu, director of the Bridge Engineering Software and Technology center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The bridge's builder, too, acknowledges that it will be a challenging project that will begin to take shape in about a year.

"The sheer size of the job and the manner which it has to be built makes it pretty difficult," said Bob Luffy, president of Pennsylvania-based American Bridge Co., the lead partner in a joint venture with Texas-based Fluor Enterprises.


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"One, it's a single tower. Two, it just dwarfs any of the other (single-anchored) spans. There's nothing even close."

Then there is the complicated building process, which makes the Golden Gate Bridge's construction look simple: "You actually build the bridge on temporary supports and then you build the center tower," he said. "Then you tie the complete bridge together with a cable.

Even the fairly straightforward 11/2-mile, $1 billion skyway project, basically a massive earthquake-worthy concrete causeway, was fraught with cost overruns, delays, investigations and audits. Luffy, whose joint venture beat out a $1.68 billion bid by a consortium led by lead skyway-builder Kiewit Pacific Co., said he does not intend for his project to go that way.

"It's our intention to bring it in within the budget, and we hope to beat the time" allotted for completing the bridge, Luffy said, "by working hard and getting focused.

Coming from someone else other than the company that built the original 1936 Bay Bridge, that might sound like braggadocio. But Luffy appears to doing exactly that on a project to rebridge the tidal Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. On a pair of projects totaling $359 million, American Bridge is leading a joint venture that is on track to finish the key drawspan section in 2007 — one year ahead of schedule.

He hopes to get a running start with Caltrans' unique "drawing campus," also known as "mission control," where engineers from American Bridge, Caltrans and subcontractors can work out kinks in construction plans.

"There are just thousands and thousands of sheets of paper that are exchanged back and forth among all of the parties, between the designer and the contractor and the construction staff," said Tony Anziano, manager of Caltrans' Toll Bridge Program.

"You could have these two pieces of metal you're putting together in a certain way, and there's some obstruction, so the contractor would send a (request for information) asking, 'Did your really mean it to be this way?' Our engineers might look at it and say, 'We think you can do it that way.'"

The problem is, this back-and-forth exchange is often repeated on hundreds of issues, and the details are worked out via FedEx, Luffy said.

"You spend half your time in the mail. This drawing campus gets everyone in the room and you get the drawings approved much more quickly," he said.

A place to iron out differences may be especially helpful if Caltrans is to deal with American Bridge's reputation for pickiness over contract language.

"It's been a real nuisance," Jim Ruddell, construction manager for the multistate and federally financed Wilson Bridge project along the Potomac, said of contract change orders that have cost $12 million. "American Bridge just seems to be more focused on presenting things that in our judgment don't have merit. It kind of wears you down after a while."

Luffy bristled at the suggestion, however, saying that "change orders are minuscule relative to the overall contract."

And Ruddell noted that the change-order disputes were mostly resolved, in part with an agreement that the extra money would include any incentives the contractor was owed for finishing early. Further, he had no trouble praising American Bridge for its work.

"To me, the really important point of a contract of the magnitude that you're looking at out there is, what are the contractors abilities, what are their resources, and what is their experience? With all three critical questions, American Bridge has clearly got the right mix."

Contact Erik N. Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com.