Yesterday, Caltrans presented the Metropolitan Transportation Commission with an update on the state of the now-infamous rods. The news is, not to put too fine a point on it, lousy. Testing is in progress, and they have set July 10 as the “drop-dead” date for scheduling the fix. That’s correct: not the date for the fix, but the date to set the date for the fix. As our friend Jaxon reports, Caltrans admits that if the date slips past Labor Day weekend, the combination of traffic needs, weather, and holidays could add months to the schedule. Jaxon also notes that Governor Brown has ordered an independent review of Caltrans to make it “a better department”. This is not a review of the bridge – that’s a separate, federal review. This is a review of Caltrans’ policies and processes intended to make the agency “more transparent”.
Then there is yesterday morning’s news break (thanks Jaxon), that expansion joints on the bridge’s integrated bike path were welded in place. The bolts in the joints need to be free to move as the path expands and contracts in response to changes in temperature. Welding the bolts prevents them from moving, and the result is that hundreds of them are known to be broken, and hundreds more need to be inspected and probably will need to be replaced.
What is it about bolts on the Bay Bridge? Forget the children, will nobody think of the bolts?
Seriously, though, the bike path was installed in 2008, yet the improper welds weren’t discovered until an inspection was done in 2012. Where the heck was the QA? Didn’t anyone check the installation at the time it was done? Granted that these bolts, unlike the seismic support rods we’ve been focused on, are not structural, but as key elements of the bike path railing, they are a significant safety component. If the installation was reviewed, there should be documentation of who reviewed it and approved the incorrect installation – which would be useful information in determining other potential problem spots. If the installation wasn’t reviewed, then one has to ask what other components of the bridge haven’t been reviewed.
Other notes on the current state of the bridge.
Actually, Caltrans’ comments on the date are just confirmation of information presented by the Chron’s investigative reporters Matier & Ross, who noted yesterday that we won’t know for weeks if the bridge will open Labor Day weekend or at some time after that. They pointed out that testing of the remaining galvanized steel rods is still going on and is unlikely to be completed before the end of June, and that even when that work is complete, there will still be the independent review by the Federal Highway Administration to be wrapped up before a decision can be made. And nobody is making any predictions about how long the federal review will take: this is, everyone says, uncharted territory.
Tuesday’s Chron featured a editorial and a pair of opinion pieces. Steve Lee, the president of a professional organization of state-employed engineers touts Caltrans’ inspectors for having “consistently done their job” and references 80,000 pages of documentation of their effort. Does that include inspection of the bike path railings prior to 2012? An unsigned editorial responds to statements by Caltrans and points out that given what we know now, the most compelling argument for opening the new bridge is not that it’s safe, but that it’s safer than the old bridge; the editorial then goes on to ask the same question I’ve been asking: “Who is responsible?” What exactly went wrong, and who signed off it? (Note: links in this paragraph are to the Chron’s pay site and may not be accessible without a subscription.)
And then there’s the best (by which I mean “most entertainingly stupid”) opinion, one I call “The Brooklyn Bridge Solution”. Leal Charonnat, an architect and engineer, suggests that Caltrans should sell the bridge tower to some community that needs a tower for a bridge that is not in an earthquake zone and not in a marine environment. Excuse me? We should try to sell a bridge that uses components that have been banned on a federal level and that are already known to be faulty? Who in their right mind would buy the tower, even at the 40% discount he proposes? Even if someone was stupid enough to do so, what does he think is a suitably “earthquake-free” area? A quick look at the USGS earthquake risk maps for the US suggests that northern North Dakota may be at low risk and not a marine environment – but it has some rather dramatic temperature extremes that can’t be good for known-fragile steel. Finally, even if somebody wants to buy the tower and determines that it’s safe, how would it be shipped? The segments were literally shipped from China to Oakland, but ships are not very useful means of transportation in non-marine environments. Shipping by truck or rail seems impractical at best. And to cap it off, he suggests a complete redesign to replace the tower – if we hadn’t been through two major redesigns already, we might actually have a functional bridge by now…
On a related note, check out Chron author Peter Hartlaub’s piece on the future of San Francisco’s architecture as revealed in “Star Trek: Into Darkness”. Most of his comments are spot-on, but he does neglect to point out that Caltrans would have to be pretty heavily involved in the construction. Bets on whether inspections are conducted and documented any better in 2259 than 2009?
I’m neither an engineer nor a QA guy, but welding bolts in expansion joints? Either the bridge engineers and QAs are missing something serious, or I am.
I had to read that paragraph of the article in the Chron twice because I couldn’t believe it the first time. I’m starting to think that the only way I’ll use the new bridge is if Caltrans supplies personal airbags similar to what NASA used to land the Mars Rover.
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