Deadline incentive speeds up Bay Bridge project

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland.

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland is supposed to open this Labor Day. A new bridge needed to be built after the current span almost collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, but it’s become a symbol of infrastructure gone wrong. It’s nearly a decade late and billions over budget. Since 2010, the bridge’s deadline and finances have stayed on track...sort of.

Officials set the Labor Day deadline three years ago, when the Bay Bridge was running late. To speed things up, the contractors would get a $20 million incentive if they finished on time.

“All these incentives were built around the idea to get the new structure open as soon as possible," says Randy Rentschler, a spokesperson for the bridge. "Because we know for sure that the existing Bay Bridge structure is vulnerable to an earthquake."

But in March, key seismic bolts on the new span snapped, endangering the bridge -- and its opening date. There was fear the contractors would rush to finish the bridge before it was ready, but Rentschler says these new repairs aren’t a factor in the incentive. 

William Ibbs, who teaches construction management at UC Berkeley, says deadline incentives are very effective.

“They’re commonly used in the private sector, they’re less commonly used in the public sector, but they’re gaining acceptance,” he says. 

Ibbs says incentives get tricky when the project is big and complicated -- like the Bay Bridge -- but this time, they worked. Officials will announce next week whether the bridge opens on time.

About the author

Isabel Angell is a reporter with KALW in San Francisco, California.

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