Bay Bridge Bolt Botch VII

I was starting to think we might make it through the week without a Bay Bridge Bolt Botch update, as the new information has been limited. But even small updates eventually add up to something moderately significant, so here we go.

For what it’s worth, The Chron has apparently assigned the Bridge stories to Jaxon Van Derbeken, who had written several of the early stories I’ve cited. He’s taken full advantage of having the stories to himself to get his byline in print and has had a couple that were pretty much free of new information. Over the past week, though, there were a few goodies.

On Sunday the 12th, he broke the word that despite Caltrans’ commitment to test all of the rods, there are more than 400 rods that can’t be tested (or at least not easily) because they are embedded in the concrete of the main tower anchorage, with the tower itself sitting above them. They’re supposed to act to prevent shear in the event of an earthquake. The best line in the article comes from a seismic engineer, one Joseph Nicoletti, who said that if the rods failed in a quake, the tower could move horizontally and “That’s something you don’t want.” Count Joseph as another engineer previously affiliated with the bridge construction (in this case, a member of an advisory panel), who apparently didn’t know of the use of galvanized, high-strength rods.

On Tuesday the 14th, Jaxon – or rather his headline writer – asked “How did bridge’s bad rods get OKd?”. The answer, according to Jaxon seems to be that nobody knows at this point. Not only is the Federal Highway Administration conducting an “arm’s-length” review, but the state Senate Transportation Committee is holding hearings and calling for a third-party review by a panel of UC professors or an independent, non-profit think-tank. A lot of people asking questions, in other words, but nobody seems to be answering them.

Wednesday, Jaxon gave us a report on the Senate Committee’s hearing with Caltrans officials. It was apparently a performance worthy of “Dancing With the Stars” as Caltrans officials ducked and dodged to avoid giving a straight answer to any questions. Senator Anthony Cannella, who owns a civil engineering company asked the key question: “[Who] made the decision to deviate from these accepted standards?” As far as I can tell from Jaxon’s report, he didn’t get an answer. Caltrans eventually told the Committee that they would develop a timeline on the decision-making process and provide it to the Committee. Whether they also committed to a timeframe in which to deliver the timeline isn’t noted.

No reports appeared for several days, but then on Tuesday the 21st, Jaxon cited John Fisher, “an emeritus professor of civil engineering at Lehigh University and member of Caltrans’ peer-review panel for the project” as saying that the decision to use the galvanized, high-strength rods was “not well-thought through” and that he “would have certainly urged them to take another course” had he been on the panel at the time. The front-page headline of the story (“Expert: Replace bridge rods”) suggests that Fisher’s recommendation is in some way binding, but reading the story makes it clear that not only is his advice not part of any of the independent reviews of the bridge project, but that Caltrans is going to great lengths to make it clear that a wide-spread replacement effort is pretty much the last thing they want to do. Brian Maroney, the bridge’s chief engineer is quoted as saying that “We haven’t decided to do that yet – that is one alternative, one consideration. We might do that.” Hardly a ringing endorsement, and it makes me wonder just how long Fisher will remain on the peer-review panel.

So where are we? We don’t know who is responsible for having made any of the decisions that have brought us to this point. We don’t know if the bridge will open on time. We don’t know what repairs will be made. And we don’t know when we’ll learn the answers to any of these questions.

Correction: We do have some of the answers now. The information above was written yesterday. According to Jaxon’s article today, it seems that the decision-making process was strongly influenced by the supplier, who pointed out that identical rods had been used on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Sounds a bit like “But everyone else was jumping off the bridge,” doesn’t it? In any case, a Caltrans corrosion expert suggested that the rods be tested for hydrogen invasion, but was overruled by Andrew Gower and Robert Kobal, both identified in Jaxon’s article as “Caltrans officials”. LinkedIn has a profile for an Andrew Gower who was a Structural Materials Representative on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge seismic retrofit at that time. Not a Caltrans employee, so it may not be the same individual, but certainly he was in the right place to have been involved as the “single point of contact between CalTrans construction staff and METS [Materials Engineering and Testing Services]”. Robert Kobal is more elusive – he seems to not have a presence on the Web.

Jaxon notes that not only are the rods on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge under less stress, but that Caltrans has used that fact to emphasize the safety of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in the past.

Those axes we’ve spoken about are getting sharper; it looks to me like Caltrans is starting to identify scapegoats for the decision use the rods without testing, but we’re still looking for the identity of the people who approved the non-repairable design.

Finally for today, let me leave you with the words of Governor Jerry Brown, who argued strongly for a spectacular bridge design when he was mayor of Oakland. Said Governor Brown of the Bolt Botch: “Shit happens.”

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