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Bay Area Presented With Nearly $1 Billion Price Tag for Seismic Upgrades to Dumbarton and Antioch Bridges

Toll Surcharge May Be in the Offing

 Now that seismic upgrade work is complete or well under way on five of the Bay Area’s state-owned toll bridges, MTC’s Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) is turning its attention to the remaining two: the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges.

A new analysis released at BATA’s monthly meeting today shows that bringing the Antioch Bridge up to current earthquake standards will cost $313 million, while hardening the Dumbarton Bridge will cost $637 million. The combined $950 million price tag for the two bridges includes contingencies, and support and mitigation costs. Staff also presented the committee with financing options, with a toll surcharge one of the likely components of the package.

The 1.8-mile Antioch Bridge opened in 1978 and arches over the San Joaquin River, connecting Contra Costa and Sacramento counties. The 1.6-mile Dumbarton Bridge is of a similar vintage, having opened in 1982; it traverses the southern portion of San Francisco Bay, connecting Alameda and San Mateo counties.

The Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee (TBPOC), consisting of BATA, Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission, hopes to put these two projects on the fast track, with work starting in 2010, and completed by 2012 on the Antioch Bridge, and by 2013 on the Dumbarton Bridge.

When Caltrans initially conducted seismic analyses of Bay Area bridges, the Dumbarton and Antioch were the youngest among the region’s seven state-owned toll bridges and not in need of upgrades. But seismic engineering has advanced considerably in the last 25 years, and TBPOC has determined that it’s time to bring these two remaining spans up to modern standards.

In addition to briefing the BATA commissioners on the bridge strengthening program, staff laid out a plan for financing the new work along with other deficits in the bridge maintenance, operation and capital improvement budgets stemming from declining bridge traffic and increases in debt costs.

The funding package likely will include a $1 toll surcharge for automobiles on the Bay Area’s seven state-owned toll bridges beginning in 2010; how much to charge multi-axle vehicles like trucks will require further discussion, as will the question of whether to start charging carpools a toll. A $1 hike would bring the automobile toll on the state bridges to $5, still below the $6 charged for cash-payers on the Golden Gate Bridge, and well below fees charged on some other bridges and tunnels elsewhere in the nation. For instance, the one-way cash toll on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York is $10.

The toll on the Bay Area’s state bridges was last raised in 2007, from an automobile toll of $3 to a toll of $4. “We’ve squeezed everything we can out of that $4 toll,” said Heminger. “We financed a $13 billion construction program, which is a phenomenal amount of leverage.”

Of the $4, a full $2 is designated as a seismic surcharge. Previous and ongoing bridge retrofit and expansion projects include the monumental new East Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is now under construction; the second span of the the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and a replacement westbound span for the Carquinez Bridge; seismic upgrades to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge; reconstruction of the West Approach to the Bay Bridge; and widening of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

Heminger emphasized the local, self-help approach to the financing plan. “It’s pretty apparent these days that there’s not a lot of extra state financing lying around,” he said. “Instead of asking the state for money, we’re asking for more authority to raise our own funding.”

The Legislature also may be asked to pass a bill incorporating the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges into the Bay Area’s state-sanctioned seismic-safety program, so that those two bridges can tap contingency funds already set aside for other Bay Area bridge seismic projects. In addition, the seismic retrofit projects may be able to tap into the infrastructure investment component of a proposed federal economic recovery program.

Simultaneously with seeking new funding to the tune of $140 million a year, BATA will be pursuing cost-savings, such as by streamlining the toll-collection process and introducing the next wave of expansion for the FasTrak® electronic toll collection system. Staff also hope to boost revenues by clamping down on toll violations.

Bridge traffic has been declining since 2004, a trend that has accelerated of late due to the economic recession and the resulting job losses as well as fluctuating gas prices. Between the first quarter of 2007-08 and the first quarter of 2008-09, bridge traffic decreased by 4.6 percent. “Toll-paying traffic is the mother’s milk of the bridge enterprise,” Heminger said. “That’s how we pay the bills.”

When gas prices soared, many transbay travelers diverted to BART, which is good for the environment and congestion, but challenging for the bridges from a financial standpoint.

In January, BATA will set the seismic projects in motion by considering the allocation of funding to manufacture prototype isolation bearings, which would isolate the superstructures of the two bridges from the substructures in the event of an earthquake.

BATA shares MTC’s staff, and is governed by the same panel of commissioners.

— Brenda Kahn

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