Still Standing

Look, I know you’re getting bored with the Bay Bridge. I sympathize. But really, that’s just what Caltrans wants. “Let’s just keep dragging this mess out. Sooner or later, everyone will get bored with it, and leave us alone to plan our escapes to Tierra del Fuego.”

No? OK, yeah, I’m kidding.

Actually, though, there’s some interesting shit going down on the Bay Bridge front. It’s not just new variations on the same old themes of corrosion, inadequate testing, and poor oversight. We’re exploring new ground here.

Before we get to the good stuff, let’s start with a bit of old news, just to set the scene. On October 25, our old friend Jaxon Van Derbeken wrote a front page piece noting that (a) an independent engineer has found cracks similar to those in the infamous flooded rods elsewhere on the bridge, and (b) Caltrans admits that the rods used throughout the bridge were not inspected to ensure that they met industry standards when they were delivered.

There isn’t much new here: independent engineers have been raising concerns since day one, and a lack of testing has been a recurrent theme. The only change is that Caltrans has actually admitted the lack of testing in this area–and it’s a big area.

Moving on to November 2. Another front page story, this one by Michael Cabanatuan, discussing the continuing delays in completing the bridge’s bike path. The East Span’s path to Treasure Island still only goes as far as the tower. It was originally planned to open along with the bridge, was delayed “two years” to accommodate the demolition of the old bridge, and then pushed to the end of 2015 due to demolition delays. Now Caltrans is saying “early 2016,” while the San Francisco County Transportation Authority says “summer 2016”.

Then there’s the issue of adding a bike path to the West Span–after all, those bikers and hikers who make it to Treasure Island might like to continue all the way to San Francisco. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission hired a consultant almost a year ago to kickstart* the feasibility studies. Feasibility studies. For a bridge that’s been in place, largely unchanged for more than seventy years. Why wasn’t that process started in 1999, when the decision to put a path on the East Span was made? Oh, well. At least wheels are turning (sorry). Based on past performance, the West Span should have its bike path no later than 2030.

* Yes, lower-case. Nobody has (yet) suggested crowdsourcing the bike path.

Speaking of demolishing the old bridge, Caltrans had planned to blow up one of the old bridge’s support pier on November 7. Unfortunately, as Jaxon reported on November 4, that work had to be postponed a week because–are you ready for this?–the dynamite was improperly packaged. Hey, this is good news: Caltrans inspected the explosives when they were delivered!

Even better news: the rescheduled explosion–pardon me–implosion seems to have gone off perfectly on November 14. The new bridge was closed to traffic for less than ten minutes, and the pier appears to have collapsed as planned. A Caltrans spokesperson notes that it’ll take “days or weeks” to finish the follow-up reports, but y’know, we’ll take our victories where we can find them.

And then there’s my favorite item. This one’s decidedly not in the victory category. On November 13, the Chronicle published a letter from Steve Heminger, Will Kempton, and Malcolm Dougherty. Recognize those names? We’ve mentioned Steve and Malcolm several times over the last few years, though this is the first time Will’s come to our notice. Brownie points to those of you who recognized the trio as the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee.

Mr. Heminger, speaking for the committee, isn’t happy with the Chronicle. Seems he feels the newspaper’s coverage has been “misleading” and might cause a “fair-minded reader” to “wonder whether the 2-year-old bridge is in imminent danger of collapse”. Unfortunately, the piece is only available behind the Chron’s pay wall, or I’d link it here. It’s a wonderful example of blaming the messenger and obfuscation.

To support the bridgehis contention, Steve cites “some of the world’s finest bridge and metal experts” who “have found no cause for alarm”. Of course, those are the experts Caltrans has hired. Steve doesn’t discuss the equally fine independent experts who have expressed their opinions. Oh, no. They’re not important.

Then Steve discusses three “myths” the Chron has, he believes, promulgated. Briefly, all three (bad Chinese welds in the road decks, the danger of the tower bolts breaking, and the risk of corrosion to the main cable) are all very narrowly defined, and Steve’s assurances address only the narrow definitions of the problems.

I’m not going to cover the myths in detail, but as an example, Steve states the second myth as “The steel bolts at the base of the suspension tower are in danger of breaking just like the east pier rods.” His corresponding “fact” states that all but one rod passed simulation testing and states that the bridge could survive without “many of the rods”. He completely ignores the fact that corrosion is a progressive problem. It gets worse over time, and once it’s started, it’s very hard to stop. Dehumidifying the rods will slow down the rust, but not stop it. Perhaps if “The Big One” Mr. Heminger cites hits in the next couple of years, “many” of the rods will survive. But does he really believe that’ll be true a few years–or decades–down the road? Remember, this bridge is supposed to be good for a century and a half.

What a classic indication that the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch has finally moved into Act Two!

As always, I’ll close by reiterating that (a) I am not an engineer, (b) I truly believe the bridge is perfectly safe at this time, and (c) I’m much less optimistic about the bridge’s future.

2 thoughts on “Still Standing

  1. That is what all the engineers think. The bridge is OK now, but it won’t last anywhere near the 150 years it was supposed to, or even as long as the old bridge did.

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    • Except, of course, for Steve’s engineers, for whom everything is peachy-keen. Of course, few of them are likely to still be around to take the rap seventy years from now–and even fewer 150 years down the road.

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