January 12, 2018
By Kimberly Veklerov
A bridge in Oakland that was supposed to cost no more than $24 million could now come to well over $30 million, and the city says toxic dirt is mostly to blame.
On top of the extra dollars, the project won’t be completed until December — two years later than the original target. Though some City Council members said they felt Oakland was being overcharged, they nonetheless approved the cost increases, reasoning, in part, that most of the funds are from the federal and state governments and that abandoning the contracts midway through construction would be more disastrous than pumping additional money into the work.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney. “It’s way beyond what I consider normal deviations.”
The undertaking to demolish and replace the 50-year-old Embarcadero Bridge that ran over the Lake Merritt Channel, just south of Interstate 880, is part of a years-long seismic safety retrofit program in California to upgrade some 2,000 bridges so they can withstand big earthquakes.
To get it done, the city hired Flatiron as its primary contractor, along with T.Y. Lin International Group, AECOM and Biggs Cardosa Associates. The firms did not respond to requests for comment.
In Oakland, the new bridge will be wider and taller than the old one, giving space for bike lanes and an underpass to connect Lake Merritt and the estuary for small boats. The project also includes better street lighting, landscaping, restrooms and rainwater treatment areas.
The bridge is seen as a critical connection between the Embarcadero Cove, the massive Brooklyn Basin development, Jack London Square and Jingletown.
At the outset, construction was supposed to begin in April 2015 and be done by December 2016. But workers at the site soon came across soil and groundwater contaminated with hydrocarbons — likely from old fuel leaks — plus lead and other metals, according to Sean Maher, spokesman for the city’s Public Works Department. The level of contamination was unexpected.
That required the contractors to erect a special dam and containment booms to prevent the pollution from getting into the bay, Maher said. The soil then had to be tested and sorted by how hazardous it was to determine which type of landfill could safely hold it.
The start of construction was delayed 15 months. A report from the city, which is disputing some of the contractors’ new payment requests, said that as of November just 40 percent of construction was done yet 65 percent of expenditures were gone.
Contamination was only half the story. City officials have repeatedly referred to a permit dispute with the contractors, but have declined to provide details. The parties are now in mediation over the issue as well as disagreements over the cost increases.
“We’ve been fighting with them for months about how much they’re asking, and we haven’t been accepting,” Mohamed Alaoui, a city engineer, told the City Council last month.
The city is trying to figure out what went wrong with an initial environmental review, which didn’t catch the amount of toxins present.
“It can be a challenging science,” Alaoui said. “You go out in the field. You have specific locations where you take samples. You make interpolations from that. You assess risk levels from that, and then you move on. And in this case it did not work.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who represents the whole city, worried that the city allowed the contractors to “intentionally lowball us so that they can come back around and hit us with these big change orders.” McElhaney, whose district contains half the project, called the higher costs “disturbing.” Councilman Abel Guillen, whose district encompasses the other half, said they were a “red flag.”
Yet, at the urging of city administrators, the council voted to approve increases that could bring the total cost to $33 million.
The California Department of Transportation, which administers the Federal Highway Administration funds, has approved its majority share of the cost increases. The city also will need to find about $1 million extra in local dollars for its portion. The money is expected to come from Measures B and BB, the Alameda County transportation sales taxes.
Kimberly Veklerov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kveklerov