News & Notes 

Over budget on the bridge, under siege on BART, painting over on Broadway, cracking down on Arlington

The billion-dollar question: The small auditorium in the basement of Caltrans' Sacramento headquarters went silent as Caltrans engineer Kevin Thompson greeted the standing-room-only crowd. "Good afternoon, today we are going to open bids for one of four contracts for the eastern Bay Bridge," Thompson told the audience of eighty contractors and colleagues. The contract to build the viaduct portion of the new bridge already was the most expensive in Caltrans history, and the audience waited in suspense as the first envelope was opened and the bid was reviewed. When Thompson said "And the total for this bid is $1 billion..." the dreaded B-word drew a collective gasp from the audience. In fact, the total bid from the joint venture headed by the construction firm Tutor-Saliba came in at $1,197,737,000. The second bid, from the joint venture Kiewit/FCI/Manson, came in slightly lower at $1,043,541,000. But even that was almost $250 million higher than Caltrans' recently revised estimate of $800 million.

As if that's not bad enough, Caltrans still has to award an even costlier contract next summer for the more complicated suspension section of the bridge. The new eastern span, pegged at $2.6 billion before the viaduct bid was opened, will replace the seismically vulnerable 65-year-old steel cantilever bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. A groundbreaking is scheduled for January 25. Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees Bay Area transportation funding, said the higher costs of the Bay Bridge should be covered by the latest funding package hammered out in the state Legislature this past summer. It includes $448 million in contingencies for all Bay Area bridge seismic work.

The billion-dollar question is whether even that will be enough.

Is that a Milk-Bone in your mouth, or are you just glad to see me? Next time you're on BART and feel a cold, wet nose in your lap, relax -- it's just your friendly dope-sniffing canine officer making the rounds, part of a combined operation by BART Police and US Customs Service agents to squelch the spreaders of reefer madness on public transit. Predictably, civil libertarians are woofing about the drug-hunting Labrador retrievers. Seems a dog sniffing and then pointing at a person constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, and to justify one of those, a two-legged public servant has to conclude that there's probable cause the straphanger is "holding." Sometimes, it is alleged, the mutts even roust innocent BART riders. "It was supposedly a test program for use at the airport, and then it spread to BART," says Dale Gieringer of decriminalization advocates NORML. "They're deciding whether to make it a regular thing. They didn't catch any major cocaine dealers or anything. I think there were about thirteen pot arrests, and one dealer with a baggie." Another chapter in the ongoing saga of homeland security. All opposed say, "Arf!"

Mural Mayhem: Poor Dan Fontes. A few weeks ago, sausage-headed vandals attached male organs to Fontes' zebra mural on Broadway. Weeks later, on December 18, another Fontes piece was smeared with genitalia. This time it was the ducks at the Montclair Recreation Center. Trouble for the ducks began in October when callous graffitistas tagged their names across the mural located near the public restrooms. According to an invoice dated October 3, Fontes planned to fix the birds for a thrifty $250. While the city's pencil-pushers took time to cut a check, genitalia-obsessed vandals spray-painted female organs on the birds along with "extremely vulgar and pornographic comments about women and their body parts," recalls Parks and Rec Director Harry Edwards. Within hours of the mid-December incident, Edwards says, residents phoned in complaints. "And with the holidays coming up, with family and friends coming into the area, the neighbors wanted to get it cleaned up." Yet instead of erasing the vandal's work -- after all, the mural was protected by a graffiti-proof coating -- Edwards ordered the entire mural blanketed in bright red paint.

Since Fontes wasn't notified of the cover-up, he's consulting with an attorney to see if the city violated the California Art Preservation Act, which requires city officials to give artists a thirty-day notice if their mural gets placed on the kibosh list. Fontes says he was never contacted; Edwards says the bright-red paint is water-based and will be easy to remove. But now it'll cost the city about $2,000 to clean the mural.

Some local artists suspect that the city's paint-over was payback to the vocal Fontes, who's questioned the Brown administration's dedication to the arts community. Days before his mural was red-coated, the Montclarion published a Fontes letter that criticized the Cultural Affairs Commission. Fontes says he can't prove he's been blacklisted, offering, "I don't have any evidence of that. More than likely, it was irritatingly coincidental timing."

"Ideally," Fontes says, "what I'd like them to do is cough up the money to fix the mural. But if I have to sue somebody, I'm going for punitive damages."

Take that, you leeches: Ever since the Berkeley City Council captured national headlines with its resolution condemning the bombing of Afghanistan, we have wondered how the UC Berkeley student body felt about the war. Being unimaginative, we assumed that the Daily Californian's online forums might offer a useful entrée into student opinion. What we got instead was a dismal lesson in the dynamics of Internet communication. Almost no students logged onto the site over the last three months; instead, the most prominent contributors have been right-wing posters from other parts of the country, who invariably use the site to express their rather colorful disgust at Berkeley's progressive traditions. Occasionally, a student would log onto the site and ask if any fellow students actually bothered with the forum, to which the regulars replied by calling him or her a vile liberal bent on emasculating the nation.

Over the Christmas season, the forum's exchanges struck a particularly sad, lonely tone, as the regulars spent their time posting flame bait in an unintentionally poignant plea for human interaction. On December 20, for example, someone who calls himself Jojo Gunn and hails from Tennessee linked readers to an article in the Weekly Standard and dared the mythical Berkeley liberals to defend their politics. "C'mon, all you somnambulist sphincter leeches," Gunn wrote. "Convince America that the universities aren't fronts for Marxism. Tell us that the professors and staff aren't deeply mentally disturbed. Let us know why you're not "progressive enough to protest against these fossils." On December 23, Gunn linked another story and wrote, "All you perverts who protested, all you perverts on the City Council, all you whiners and complainers and collaborators who sought to do nothing in the name of 'peace' -- read this, freaks. Read about the Taliban, and of missing women, of raped women, of young girls who have simply disappeared. Then apologize for it."

On Christmas Day, Gunn took time from his family to post a parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas": "Ten melanin-deprived testosterone-poisoned scions of the patriarchal ruling class system leaping/ Nine persons engaged in rhythmic self-expression/ Eight economically disadvantaged female persons stealing milk-products from enslaved Bovine-Americans..." All of which underscores the false promise of Internet communities. Their boosters promise a new era of communication and citizenship. But all too often, they become a crutch for lonely, angry men who just want to vent.

The War at Home: From the Kensington Outlook November Police Report:

An Ardmore Avenue resident received a suspicious letter in the mail that originated in Mongolia and was addressed to a Washington state address. The police phoned the Washington addressee who confirmed they were expecting the letter.

A Yale Avenue resident received a thick, orange, hand-addressed letter postmarked from West Palm Beach, Florida to an addressee in Brick Township, New Jersey. The resident brought the letter, sealed in a plastic zip-locked bag, to the police department. The police rebagged the letter and phoned Brick Township, NJ police in an effort to contact the addressee. While waiting for a response, police requested the assistance of the Richmond hazardous materials team. Police closed Arlington Avenue in both directions at 11 a.m. so that the haz-mat team could begin their tests. Within fifteen minutes, a New Jersey resident called to confirm ownership of the letter. Police reopened Arlington Avenue, taped the letter closed, and mailed it to the addressee.

A Trinity Avenue resident reported a solicitor selling cleaning products. The salesman claimed he was trying to win a trip to Hawaii. Police confronted the suspect and asked him to stop soliciting until obtaining a county permit.

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