Act One, Two Years On

We’re rapidly approaching the second anniversary of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch: the first stories appeared in the Chron on March 28, 2013, and my first blog post about it was the next day. And for two years, it’s been the story that never ends.

The most incredible thing about the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch is that we’re still learning new things about the mess. Think about that for a moment.

The usual pattern for a long-running story is for it to go through multiple acts. In Act One, the problem is revealed. Act Two features accusations, counter-accusations, and disclaimers of responsibility. Then, in Act Three, the focus shifts from the problem itself to the assignment of blame, both in the courts and in the eyes of the public. Act Four is the punishment phase: a criminal is sent to prison, a corporation is fined, or a high-powered executive is acquitted. Finally, Act Five brings us a series of recapitulations and “where are they now” pieces in the news. Typically, Act Three is the longest, with the court case dragging on for years.

Not so with the BBBB. Two years in, and we’re still in Act One! Sure, there’s been finger pointing, but the focus is still on discovering everything that’s wrong with the Bay Bridge’s eastern span. Two years–and counting!

All of which is a long-winded lead-up to the latest revelations. As Jaxon tells us, we’ve got a new problem. Or, more accurately, a new twist on a problem we already knew about.

Remember the rods that attach the bridge tower to the pilings? We learned last year that they had, contrary to Caltrans’ standards, been galvanized, rendering them susceptible to cracks in wet conditions. We also learned that they had been improperly sealed in place, with the result that they’ve been sitting in rainwater for years.

Caltrans downplayed the risk because the rods had not been under tension, unlike the original seismic stabilization bolts that gave the Bolt Botch its name. Then, earlier this month, Jaxon reported that in 2011 the tower had been angled slightly toward the East Bay. In the course of straightening it, the rods had been under high tension for a year.

So it should come as no surprise that Jaxon’s latest report is that the rods are showing signs of cracking along their entire lengths, not just in the portions that have been well-marinated.

Due to the design of the bridge, the original broken bolts couldn’t be replaced, so Caltrans came up with the infamous “saddle” to attach the roadbed to the seismic stabilization system. I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next: due to the design of the bridge, the cracked rods can’t be replaced either. Nobody has, as far as I can tell, suggested that an alternate attachment system to ensure the bridge remains connected to its foundation is necessary, or even possible.

In all fairness, the bridge should be perfectly fine under normal conditions. Nothing that’s been reported so far suggests otherwise.

That said, nobody is talking about what Caltrans’ models show will happen to the bridge–the $6.4 billion bridge–in the event of a major earthquake. Let’s remember that the chance of a Loma Prieta-sized quake occurring in the Bay Area in the next thirty years is pegged at 31%.

Hey, guys? This Bay Bridge Bolt Botch play has an interesting premise, but it’s running a bit long. How’s about you wrap up Act One? Stop finding new problems, and let’s move on to the accusations, OK?

7 thoughts on “Act One, Two Years On

  1. I try, I really do try, to continue to be amused by this monumental saga of incompetence, but it’s getting harder to smile, all the time. It’s tempting to make this story a symbol of all that has gone wrong with our country, in general: Corruption, lack of accountability and responsibility, outsourcing to agencies with- how shall I say?- different standards and then applying little oversight, outright, stunning stupidity- and all of it paid for by us, the helpless onlookers who thought these guys COULD ACTUALLY BUILD A BRIDGE WITHOUT FUCKING IT UP BEYOND ANYONE’S CONCEPTION OF HOW FUCKED UP IT COULD BE!
    Sorry for shouting. No, I am not amused at all. I want gibbets erected in a public place. I want heads to roll- literally, I want somebody to pay for this bloody balls-up, other than me and mine, and I have absolutely no faith that that will happen. None.
    It may be time to get out the pitchforks and torches- but where do we march to? To what (or whom) do we put the torch? Perhaps time will tell
    Thanks for staying on the story, even if it does do bad things to my blood pressure.


    • I said in that original post “I doubt anybody sane would have expected the project to be trouble-free,” and I sure got that one right. Any project larger than dealing cards almost certainly has bugs.

      Then I went on to say “and it seems to me like the problems so far have been within the range of trouble that should be expected for a project this size.” Very glad I included that “so far,” or I’d be wiping egg of my face, just like Caltrans is.

      At this point, maybe it’s best to consider the Bay Bridge as an experimental theatre piece, marrying Grand Guignol with the Theatre of the Absurd.

      Just don’t take my posts with a grain of salt, and your blood pressure will be fine.


    • You’re welcome, but Jaxon is really the one you should be thanking. He’s doing the reporting, I’m just editorializing. Drop him a note at the Chron and thank him for his hard work.

      If we ever get to Acts Three and Four, it’ll be because he’s doing the digging.


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