Speedy repairs on the melted MacArthur Maze freeway section that reopens Friday in Oakland have stoked interest in expanding the use of financial bonuses to motivate Caltrans contractors to finish projects earlier.

The state Senate transportation and appropriations committees will conduct hearings next month on bonuses and other possible ways to reduce lengthy highway project construction times that frustrate the public, said Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch.

Torlakson said legislators' interest was piqued by the MacArthur Maze contractor, which finished the project in half the expected time to earn a $5 million bonus.

"This project is a sign of what can be done when the red tape is cut and bonuses are offered," said Torlakson, chairman of the appropriations committee. "This was a creative partnership between Caltrans and an innovative contractor."

Some experts have reservations about the incentive idea, including one UC Berkeley engineering professor who questions whether the Maze is safe to reopen.

Contractor C.C. Myers Inc. repaired the eastbound connector from Interstate 80 to Interstate 580 in 16 days, qualifying for a bonus of $200,000 a day for as many as 25 days before a June 27 deadline.

Myers landed the contract with a $867,075 bid to repair the overpass that collapsed April 29 when a gasoline tanker crashed and caught fire on freeway sections 20 feet below. Caltrans had estimated the project would cost about $5.2 million.

Caltrans offers lump sum daily bonuses in emergency projects such as the MacArthur Maze or very large projects such as a bridge construction.

Torlakson said he wants to look into offering the bonuses for medium-size, non-emergency projects as well.

The timing is important, he said, because Caltrans is gearing up to ramp up highway construction with a $19.9 billion transportation bond issue approved by voters in November.

Some safety and environmental experts say they worry that offering more bonuses or reducing review time for highway projects could create pressure to skimp on project safety or minimize potential environmental harm.

"Bonuses within moderation are a good idea but are not the magic bullet for everything," said Stuart Cohen, chief of an Oakland-based transit advocacy group called the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Cohen also said that offering too many or too generous bonuses can be a costly use of taxpayer money.

One safety expert said finishing projects too fast could undermine their stability and safety.

UC Berkeley professor Abolhassan Astaneh, who was awarded a $25,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to assess the cause of the freeway collapse, said he would have preferred that state highway engineers demolished and discarded the four supporting piers that were baked at high temperatures by the fiery crash.

But failing that, Caltrans should consider delaying reopening the 580 inside the MacArthur Maze beyond Friday, Astaneh said, until its engineer can show that the piers remain strong enough to stand up to a large earthquake on the Hayward fault.

Caltrans chief engineer Rick Land said the agency took no shortcuts on safety and replaced pier components in which there were any doubts.

"I'm 100 percent certain the work is safe," Land said, "and the structure will last for years and years and years."

What worries Astaneh are cracks he found inside test bores that Caltrans drilled into the piers or columns holding up both Interstate 580 and Interstate 880 underneath.

"Right in the middle of the hole is a big crack. You could put a quarter in it," Astaneh said. "That's bad news."

"I think they were under political pressure to reopen this as soon as possible."

Land said the agency drilled more than 40 core samples in the piers and roadways after the fire and "analyzed every one of them."

"Only in the ones at the top did we find some cracks," Land said. Caltrans had its contractor remove the top 3 to 4 feet of concrete inside the steel-jacketed pier and replace it, he said.

"Wherever we found things we didn't think were appropriate for the integrity of the structure, we dealt with those," Land said. "We've done what we felt was absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of the structure. We didn't cut corners on this. We went through our standard process."

C.C. Myers earned the bonus by working around the clock to finish early. To speed up things, crews preparing for concrete work waited on the sidelines so they could begin work the moment ironworkers finished putting steel girders in place.

"It's not like (C.C. Myers) is putting $5 million in his pocket," Land said.

Land said Caltrans offers financial incentives more than is widely known.

For projects larger than $5 million, Land said, Caltrans awards contracts based on a formula that considers the bidder's promised completion time as well as the cost of the work.

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@cctimes.com MediaNews staff writer Ian Hoffman contributed to this story.