State officials say it's important to give the public a chance to walk across the dazzling new eastern span of the Bay Bridge when it opens Labor Day weekend, even if it costs taxpayers $5.6 million.
Other recent grand celebrations of public projects don't even come close.
Taxpayers shelled out nothing for the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th anniversary extravaganza in 2012, an over-the-top Memorial Day weekend gala that culminated in a parade of ships and a dazzling light and fireworks show. The price tag has not been disclosed but a private foundation raised all the money.
And the San Francisco Giants picked up the $1 million production tab for October's World Series parade, with the city on the hook for just $225,000 for police overtime, transit and cleanup, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Clearly, it would be preferable if private money could be raised to cover all the costs," said state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier of Concord. "That said, this is the public's bridge and they deserve this once-in-a-century opportunity to walk on their bridge. If it takes some public dollars to make it a safe event, then so be it. I'm not going to second-guess the experts about what that should cost."
The new $6.4 billion Bay Bridge may be the world's largest self-anchored suspension span and California's most expensive public works project in history, but the sources of private dollars for its grand opening party were always limited.
The workhorse lacks the deep symbology of its iconic neighbor or its natural viewing arena already served by multiple forms of transit, said Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman Randy Rentschler, who defended the Toll Authority's plan to spend $5.6 million collected from bridge tolls.
"We want this to be a public event and since not everyone runs or bicycles, we think people should be able to access the bridge without paying directly for it," Rentschler said. "To have a public event, we have to provide transportation, portable toilets, water, security and the like. That all costs money. "
The money will be spent solely on security, logistics and transportation costs associated with allowing up to 125,000 people walk the full length of the span from Oakland to San Francisco during a free public celebration on the day before it opens to traffic on Sept. 3. Half a million dollars will go for registration and ticketing; nearly $2 million to bus folks to the toll plaza to begin the walk. By contrast, tollpayers were tapped a total of $300,000 in public access costs for the 2003 Carquinez Bridge opening celebration, during which 10,000 people walked across the span. A private group raised funds for the fireworks and related events.
For the Bay Bridge party, the Bay Bridge Alliance, a private nonprofit, is also raising money for two runs and a bicycle race, where participants will pay entry fees.
Acting state Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Brian Kelly, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown whose agency oversees Caltrans, said it would be preferable to raise private funds, but agreed it was appropriate to spend toll money on public safety and access costs. His stance is markedly different from a few months ago when his agency dumped a $10 million bridge PR contract after taking issue with its three-year term and plans for a documentary book and movie.
"Ideally, costs for an opening celebration should -- to the extent possible -- be met by privately raised funds, while things like public access and public safety may appropriately be funded with public money, if that is what the Bay Area Toll Authority decides," Kelly said in a statement late Thursday.
Organizers expect as many as 200,000 people will flock to the new Bay Bridge opening given the 280,000 commuters who cross the bridge each day and the thousands of people who worked on the bridge and will want to bring their families to celebrate. But they will not all be allowed to walk across it.
"We absolutely cannot have happen at this event what happened on the Golden Gate Bridge's 50th anniversary," said Rentschler, referring to the ill-fated day in 1987 when organizers expected 50,000 people. Instead, an estimated 800,000 people attempted to walk across the span and the weight actually flattened the suspended deck.
Residents who wish to sign up for notifications about ticket availability, volunteering or the event schedule should visit www.baybridgecelebration.com.