If you've followed the progress of the new Bay Bridge, you should be numb to surprise by now. As the project lumbers toward completion in six months, it's $5 billion over its original budget and nine years behind its original schedule. Cost overruns, delays and mismanagement cease to amaze when they keep recurring.

Still, a lot people swallowed their tongues last week when the Bay Area Toll Authority's oversight committee forwarded a plan to spend $5.6 million for a bridge-opening celebration over the Labor Day weekend. What's to celebrate? That the bleeding has stopped? That we're on only our fourth governor since the rebuild was approved? Isn't this like a graduation party for the kid who needed nine tries to complete his senior year?

Caltrans switches on  more than 100 large lights attached to the steep catwalks that will be used to install a giant cable over the top of the
Caltrans switches on more than 100 large lights attached to the steep catwalks that will be used to install a giant cable over the top of the 525-foot-tall Bay Bridge tower near San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. The lights give a preview of what the completed bridge will look like at night. The lights were used as construction lights on the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge in Crockett. (Karl Mondon/Staff) ( KARL MONDON )

To put the dollar figure in context, $5.6 million is more than the bridge generates in weekly tolls. It's enough to pay fares for 1 million vehicles. Or, it's enough for a lavish, self-congratulatory party.

"I take issue with the word 'party,'" said Randy Rentschler, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman and celebration planner. "The way I see it, we did the exact same thing for the opening of the new Carquinez Bridge (in 2003)."

There's a tiny difference in scope, of course. The Carquinez party -- excuse me, opening celebration -- cost $300,000, attracted about 15,000 bridge walkers and an equal number to a fireworks display. The Bay Bridgeathon is expected to engage 200,000 walkers, runners and bikers, plus 300,000 for the fireworks.

Rentschler said planners considered many ways to mark the opening -- Lord knows, they had time -- including doing nothing. ("Just open it to cars and we're finished with it," he said.) One option was a cultural celebration, with stage acts near the chain-cutting ceremony. Another was running and biking events, with participants paying entry fees. (Those are incorporated into the final plan.)

Planners finally gravitated toward something that offered broader access -- a leisurely walk for all who wished to cross the six-mile span. That means busing participants from BART stations to the starting point, crowd control, restrooms, water stops and public safety. Inviting everyone isn't cheap.

"This bridge has some serious attractions when you get close to it," Rentschler said. "It's a thing of beauty. You can't experience it in a car; you have to do it in person. When people do that, I think the magic of the thing is really going to rub off."

Rentschler, who has marveled at the bridge up close, thinks others should have the experience. Whether that's worth $5.6 million is the question. Will people look back years from now and proudly tell their grandchildren, "I was there for opening day," or will they say, "Do you know how much they spent on that damn event?"

HANDOUT  ART Tribune News 11/12/04Artist’s rendering of the new Bay Bridge.
HANDOUT ART Tribune News 11/12/04 Artist's rendering of the new Bay Bridge.

Maybe this is a fitting end to a project that has both captured the Bay Area's fancy and tried its patience. The heart swells with civic pride as the mind winces at the price. Rentschler understands the paradox of celebrating something that has often been the target of scorn.

"Even with the history of debate we had on the bridge and the cost overruns," he said, "I think at a certain point we're all going to be proud of it. Let's look at it for what it is, not the path we took to get here."

Remember, this is a once-in-a-lifetime project. And not just because it took that long.

For details about the opening ceremony, go to http://baybridgecelebration.com. Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.