At Least It’s Not…

Here’s a bit of good news to start the post. Today is Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s. Swing by your local outlet this afternoon and have some ice cream. No local outlet? Temperatures still under 40F? Doesn’t matter. Have some ice cream anyway. Consider it a ritual invocation of better weather and a shield against thoughts of Tax Day tomorrow.

As it happens, I don’t have a convenient B&J, so I’ll be going to my local semi-independent ice cream store this evening. I’ll consume my cone as a sacrifice to the rain gods. Join me, won’t you?

Moving on to something less cheerful.

Ever hear of Mumford & Sons? They’ve been around since (quick Google search) 2007, and they have a unique sound. Imagine Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound crossed in an unholy hybrid with Martin Mull’s famous Fiddle and Banjo Crap. Now speed it up to 160 beats per minute. That’s M&S.

Did I say “have”? I should have said “had”. Their latest album totally abandons that sound, and I think it’s a major mistake.

Let me make one thing clear: I hate their original sound with a passion. There is nothing–NOTHING–that will make me turn off the radio faster than Little Lion Man. It’s become a family catchphrase. Stuck in traffic for an hour? Ice cream shop closed when we get there? “At least it’s not Mumford & Sons.”

But even so, I still think M&S’s change is a mistake. They’re calling it a “natural departure.” I’d never criticize any artist for trying something new. The problem is that that M&S isn’t trying something new. Based on what we’ve heard of the new sound, it’s just like every Alt Rock band you’ve never heard of.

I’m not suggesting they should go back to their original sound–Goddess forbid! But guys, if you’re tired of the banjos and the country/bluegrass, take your cue from the Beatles and David Bowie, and give us a new sound, something you can own and be proud of. Don’t insult us with a generic sound off the shelf, and don’t insult yourself by considering it growth.

Moving on again.

Remember those anchor rods on the Bay Bridge? The ones that were improperly weatherproofed and stressed by fixing the Leaning Tower of the East Bay? Caltrans has found evidence that one of those rods may be broken.

They’ve been doing ultrasound tests on the rods, and apparently one of them is six inches shorter than the rest. Six inches out of twenty-five feet doesn’t sound like much, and it is quite possible that it’s short because a minor flaw was trimmed off the end before the rod was installed. But it could also be a sign that the rod snapped at some point after it was installed.

The other 421 rods passed the ultrasound test, but if I understand the technology correctly, that only shows they haven’t broken, not whether they’ve been stressed almost to the point of breaking. And if the one rod broke, it casts doubt on the long-term durability of the rest.

So Caltrans is going to test that rod by pulling on the top end. If it moves, they’ll know it’s broken. Seems pretty straightforward. We should know shortly whether we need to add another worry to the list already attached to that shiny $6.4 billion bridge.

Either way though, we can console ourselves with one thought: at least the Bay Bridge isn’t Mumford & Sons.

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?

I’m Not Making This Up, Either

According to Adweek, CNN claims ISIS is using Nutella and kittens to recruit women.

How sexist is that? Why are ISIS and CNN assuming that only women will be attracted to a violent, repressive regime by kittens? I know plenty of men who would be quite susceptible to kitten-oriented recruitment techniques.

Then there’s the whole Nutella question. Does anyone like chocolate hazelnut spread enough to leave their comfortable life in search of a jar? It’s not like you can’t find it on the local convenience store shelves if you have an irrational craving.

As a writer, I shouldn’t admit it, but I really couldn’t make up anything this ridiculous. And even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to sell it.

Moving on.

Elevators have been around for more than two thousand years. The modern safety elevator was introduced in 1852. I had assumed that by now the elevator was well-understood technology. Apparently not at Caltrans.

Yup, more problems on the Bay Bridge.

There’s a service elevator on the bridge. It was installed for a very sensible reason: workers need a way to get to the top of the tower to do inspections and maintenance. Once the original elevator design was introduced, bridge officials requested changes to support an additional use: tourism. No, they weren’t thinking of making the top of the Bay Bridge tower into a popular destination on a par with Coit Tower. They wanted to use it as a tool to sell bonds to pay for the bridge.

I’m unsure how they thought that would work. Given my own feelings about heights, I suspect the most successful technique would be to take prospects to the top of the tower and then refuse to let them leave until they signed a purchase request. But that would probably violate a few dozen laws.

Anyway, the design was changed to include large windows to improve the view. In the focus on scope creep in the elevator cab, though, apparently nobody reviewed the design of the system as a whole.

Elevators move in straight lines. Usually, but not always vertical lines. They can cope with diagonals if the shaft is properly built: some of the cab’s weight rests on guide rails, instead of placing all of the weight on the cables. What they can’t handle well are changes of direction.

Remember why the bridge design was chosen? The selection committee wanted something unique. We all know how that turned out. Now we know that, not only is the bridge unique, so is its elevator. The lower half of the ascent is angled inward (toward the tower) and halfway up it changes to an angle out away from the tower. According to the manufacturer, no other elevator has a similar multi-angled path. Lovely.

In practice, the elevator lasted just over a month–from December 5 to January 8–before its drive shaft failed. Actually, the elevator was only in operation for a couple of weeks, thanks to a door failure that idled it from December 7 to 23.

At least bridge commuters won’t have to pay for the repairs. The elevator is still under warranty.

You know, I tried to turn the tale of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch into a short story. I couldn’t rationalize all of the problems believably enough to make a coherent narrative.

Moving on.

On Tuesday, “School closings” was the third most popular search on Google. Not surprising, given the sub-arctic conditions covering most of the US.

Wednesday, Vanilla Ice was arrested on charges of burglary and grand theft.

Today, Niagara Falls is frozen.

Clearly this is a very bad week for ice.

And if I wrote something like this into a book, reviewers would slam me for “lack of realism” and use of “convenient coincidence”.

Ain’t It Good To Know…

Jaxon is back, and in top form.

Last Sunday, he had a piece in the Chron with a bit of information we hadn’t heard before. It seems that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has a lot in common with Caltrans.

Like Caltrans did for the Bay Bridge, WSDOT set aside their normal rules against using galvanized steel for the Hood Canal pontoon bridge. Like Caltrans, WSDOT purchased steel rods from Dyson Corp. And, like Caltrans, WSDOT’s rods failed, cracking only a few days after installation.

The Hood Canal rods were installed and failed in 2009, about six months after the Bay Bridge’s more famous bolts were installed. (The Bay Bridge bolts didn’t fail until 2013 because the final stage of installation, tightening the bolts, had to wait for other work to be completed. In the meantime, the Bay Bridge bolts were marinated in rainwater, weakening them to the point where 32 of them snapped immediately after they were tightened.

If Caltrans had heard about the Hood Canal failure, they might have revisited the decision to use galvanized steel. Of course, that’s an optimistic notion, given the issues Jaxon has been documenting in Caltrans’ lack of internal communication.

Interestingly, WSDOT didn’t do any testing to determine why their rods failed. Lack of testing–where have I heard that before? WSDOT instead relied on an engineering analysis. Unfortunately, nobody told the engineer who did the work that the rods hadn’t failed immediately. Lack of communication and incomplete documentation. That sounds familiar too.

This isn’t WSDOT’s only bridge debacle, by the way. The 520 Floating Bridge project has been dogged by problems including leaking pontoons. KOMO News quotes Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond as admitting that the pontoon design didn’t follow standards of good practice and that WSDOT didn’t follow their own rules for oversight and administration.

Really sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There’s one important difference between WSDOT and Caltrans, though. According to KOMO, “Hammond said disciplinary action will be taken against state bridge division staff who signed off on the design without running models that might have foreseen the cracking.” Unlike Caltrans’ policy, which seems to be one of finger pointing and lack of accountability, WSDOT is at least making the effort to deal with their problems.

They’ve got a long way to go, though. Jaxon tells us the primary builder on the Hood Canal bridge was Kiewit Corp and that Kiewit is disclaiming responsibility for the cracked rods, and referring questions to Dyson. The primary builder on the 520 bridge? An outfit called Kiewit Corp. KOMO reported last April that, even with the pontoon design flaws corrected, Kiewit is having problems with the construction. An entire 120 foot section of one pontoon was damaged by freezing weather and had to be redone. Kiewit accepted “full responsibility” for that damage, so their failure to take any responsibility for the cracked rods represents something of a regression.

Dyson, by the way, is accepting no responsibility for either the Hood Canal or Bay Bridge failures. Their position is that they supplied the materials they had been contracted to manufacture, and if a contractor specifies an inappropriate material, that’s not Dyson’s fault. So Caltrans and WSDOT have that in common, too.

It’s a lonely position, having the world pointing their fingers at you and laughing at your mistakes. But at least WSDOT and Caltrans can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone anymore.

Microsoft Is the Future

Before I get to the meat of today’s post, I want to close out Tuesday’s post. I got a very pleasant e-mail from Jaxon in response to my dissing of his latest article on the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch.

Unsurprisingly, he disagreed with my view that the article places too much of the blame for the fiasco on the design committee and their choice. This is still a more or less free country, and he is, of course, entitled to his opinion, however wrong it may be. I didn’t expect that he’d read my blog post and immediately see the error of his ways. But perhaps he’ll come around in the future.

And there will be opportunities for Jaxon to see the light. He assured me that he’ll continue to cover “the flaws and foibles” of the Bay Bridge project. That’s good news. Despite my teasing and my disappointment with the latest article, his writing on the subject has been consistently good. Certainly better than that of certain other Chronicle reporters; if you doubt that, take a look back to June, 2013. Jaxon’s article names names and doesn’t cut Caltrans any slack, while his colleague’s piece a few days later swallows Caltrans’ claims of collective responsibility whole, and regurgitates them, entirely undigested.

Moving on.

There were a number of interesting announcements out of Microsoft earlier this week related to the impending arrival of Windows 10. I found two of them particularly fascinating.

First, there’s the announcement that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for anyone running Windows 7 or Windows 8, as long as they do the upgrade in the first year after Windows 10 is released. What really makes that interesting is that the free upgrade is not available to anyone running XP.

As ArsTechnica notes, XP still accounts for almost 15% of the worldwide OS marketshare–nearly twice as much as all versions of Macintosh OS X–despite the fact that it’s completely unsupported. Apparently, Microsoft is giving up trying to convince XP users that it’s time to move on and upgrade to a supported OS.

And that one year window has some interesting implications for users of Windows 7, which moved from “mainstream support” to “extended support” earlier this month and will become unsupported in January of 2020. Microsoft hasn’t announced a release date for Windows 10, but it’s almost certainly going to be sooner than four years from now. Why would Microsoft eliminate its biggest incentive to upgrade? Do they really want a years-long period of Windows 7 getting increasingly creaky but nobody moving on? Didn’t they learn anything from the effort to get people off of XP before the end of extended support?

We could be optimistic, I suppose. Microsoft has taken the important step of offering a free upgrade. Maybe as Win7’s end of life approaches, they’ll take the next step and try paying people to upgrade. Imagine: “Download your Windows 10 (2019 edition) upgrade here and we’ll send you a $50 Visa Debit Card, good at any retailer that still has a bricks-and-mortar outlet.” It’s worth a try, guys.

The other interesting announcement is, as you’ve probably already guessed, Microsoft’s HoloLens.

It seemed a little odd how much excitement HoloLens is generating, given the recent crowing we’ve seen in the press about the death of Google Glass*. On further thought, though, I think the buzz has a lot to do with the difference in HoloLens’ focus.

* For the record, Glass isn’t dead. The current hardware may not be available, but Google hasn’t given up on the idea. There’s still a Glass team, and even if the classic spectacle-mounted display doesn’t make a comeback, ideas and techniques from Glass will find their way into other Google products.

Glass was and is primarily about sharing your life–remember the live skydiving video at Google I/O 2012?–rather than enhancing it. The provision of contextual information is a secondary goal, and Google took great pains to keep it unobtrusive.

At the other extreme, you’ve got Oculus Rift and other virtual reality systems working toward a fully-immersive experience.

HoloLens sits in between the extremes, aiming to provide contextual enhancement to your environment without replacing the entire world around you.

By focusing on providing useful information without burying you in it, Microsoft may just find the sweet spot of user interest. The demos being run for reporters suggest they haven’t yet decided exactly where on the spectrum that sweet spot lies–the Mars demo, for instance, is nearly as extensive as an Oculus Rift-style virtual reality–but the current state of the hardware makes it clear that they still have time to refine their target.

Microsoft says HoloLens will be available “in the same timeframe as Windows 10.” It’s clear that the HoloLens hardware is not as close to release as Win10, so don’t expect to get a HoloLens system the same day you download your free OS upgrade. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if HoloLens doesn’t hit the shelves until after the free upgrade offer runs out–but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the hardware came with a bundled copy of Win10. That might be just enough incentive to convince a few laggard Win7–or even XP–users that the time catch up with the rest of the world has arrived.

An Open Letter to Jaxon Van Derbeken

Dear Jaxon,

You blew it.

I’ve been reading your coverage of the ongoing fiasco that is the eastern span of the Bay Bridge since the days when we all thought the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch was the only fault.

You’ve been doing a great job, explaining technical issues in clear, non-technical language; showing how newly-discovered issues relate to previously-known problems; and calling out problems at all levels of the project: design missteps, testing failures, and breakdowns in oversight.

When I saw the front page headline on last Sunday’s Chron, “Special Report – The Troubled Bay Bridge: How landmark became debacle, I was thrilled. My immediate thought was “Awesome! Jaxon is going to name names and kick butt.”

Imagine my disappointment when I read the article. Anyone reading it would think that every single problem with the bridge is the fault of the selection committee who chose the self-anchored suspension design.

Granted, the committee bears some responsibility for the problems, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that everything would have been perfectly fine if they had chosen the conventional, well-understood cable-stayed design.

Not one word about the engineers who incorporated multiple unrepairable elements into the specifications. No mention of the violations of Caltrans’ own guidelines that led to the use of galvanized bolts. Complete silence regarding the tests and inspections that were either never performed or were not properly documented. Only a passing mention of the issues caused by poor oversight of subcontractors and low bidding suppliers. All issues you’ve covered in previous articles. All issues stemming from Caltrans’ dysfunctional culture, hence likely to have affected the construction of the Bay Bridge no matter what design had been chosen.

You imply that the make-up of the committee was at fault because the majority had little or no experience with bridge design and construction. Yet this is typical, not just in engineering, but in every field of endeavor: decisions are made by managers, executives, or elected representatives who have no experience in the field. That’s why they take the advice of the experts. In this case, as your article makes clear, many of the experts on the committee believed the problems could be overcome, and the self-anchored bridge could be built for only slightly more than ten percent more than the cable-stayed design. That makes the decision much more rational than you suggest.

If Caltrans officials truly were, as you report, “absolutely horrified,” then the error can–must–be assigned to them. If they honestly believed that Caltrans could not build the self-anchored span within the budgeted time and cost, they should have made that clear to the committee long before the final vote was taken.

As it stands, this piece is almost as disappointing as the Bay Bridge itself; far below your usual standard. Please tell me there was an error in laying out the article, that the magic words “Part One of an ongoing series” were somehow omitted. Come on, Jaxon, name the names and kick the butts of the people who were really responsible for sticking us with an overpriced bridge of dubious stability.

Change You Won’t See

It’s that time of year when blogger’s thoughts turn to change. Seems like everyone is talking about it. Change for the better, change for the worse. Far be it for me to neglect a tidal wave of interest. But naturally, I have to put my own cynical spin on it.

Herewith, my top five list of things that need to change in 2015, but won’t.

5. BART’s mañana attitude. Not just waiting until the last minute and beyond to negotiate with the unions–really, guys, it’s not too early to start working on the 2017 contract, honest–but in general. Cars are increasingly overcrowded; by the time the new cars with more space are delivered in 2016 and 2017, they’ll be packed just as tight as the old cars are now. And yet, we keep hearing that BART can’t start thinking about increasing capacity until after the cars are delivered.

4. Caltrans’ “It doesn’t need to be tested” attitude. Do I even need to elaborate on this? It’s not just the Bay Bridge: everything we’re hearing suggests that Caltrans needs to make a significant change in its corporate culture. Consider future needs. Don’t take it for granted that construction has been done to standard. Recognize that budgets are not infinitely flexible.

3. Government’s belief that citizens have no right to privacy. Did you notice that the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release a pile of audit reports, hoping that nobody would pay attention? Bloomberg’s report makes it obvious that nobody is exercising any control over the NSA. If there are no processes–or software controls–in place to prevent analysts from conducting surveillance without authorization, it means the organization is relying on self-policing. And if an analyst can accidentally submit a request for surveillance on himself, it’s a pretty good sign that self-policing isn’t working. And yet, the NSA wants more access to record and monitor everything that everyone does. Oh, and let’s not forget the FBI, which continues to claim that North Korea is reponsible for the Sony hack, despite significant evidence that the crackers were Russians, possibly assisted by an employee or ex-employee.

2.5 The increasing militarization of local police. As long as police departments are free to buy new and increasingly lethal toys, no one will be able to make any progress in decreasing the fear and distrust between police and the general public. Drone flights won’t make the public feel safer, and the increased resentment will easily flash over into more threats against the police. And body cameras are not and will never be the answer. They’re too easily forgotten, damaged, misinterpreted, or outright ignored.

2. The endless waffling and squabbling by MLB and the As. Just make a decision, people. Yes, is a literal cesspool, but the As aren’t going to make any effort to improve the situation while the possibility exists that they could skip town. The costs of San Jose’s lawsuit are increasing, and MLB’s anti-trust exemption–already cracked by recent court decisions on the NFL’s blackout rules–is at risk. Regardless of your opinion of the exemption as a whole, having it revoked or struck down would open the door to levels of team movements that haven’t been seen since the 1890s. MLB needs to–ahem–shit or get off the pot before someone yanks the pot out from under them.

1. Phones getting bigger. Remember how bad the RSI epidemic was before we started to figure out how hard on the wrists sitting and typing all day was? I’m increasingly of the opinion that we’re treading the same path here. People are holding larger, heavier phones all the time. Bluetooth headsets aren’t a cure: you still need to hold your phone to play games, watch videos, and read and write all but the simplest e-mails. I fully expect 2015 to be the year of the sprained wrist, as Android phone-makers rush out models to increase their size lead over Apple. 2016 will be even worse when Apple catches up with an iPhone 7 that–projecting the trend–will require a personal crane to lift. Not that all of the blame can be assigned to device manufacturers. Several studies that I just made up indicate that all of the screen protectors, fancy cases, and assorted bling that consumers slather on their phones increase the weight by at least twenty-five percent.

0. Happy New Year!

Good News / Bad News

Apparently it’s a Good News/Bad News sort of day.

First up, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee has released a draft of their report on the Bay Bridge’s 2,200 bolts.

  • Good News: The report concludes that the bolts can “safely remain in service”.
  • Bad News: Caltrans’ credibility is so badly damaged that Jaxon’s article in today’s Chron gives almost as much space to a dissenting opinion. That opinion, provided by Yun Chung, a retired Bechtel engineer, takes issue with the design and extent of the tests Caltrans conducted.
  • Good News: At least Caltrans has documented the tests. That’s a major step forward from their previous practices on the Bay Bridge eastern span.
  • Bad News: The release of the draft report comes just a few days after the minimal “management shakeup” that’s been widely panned. Regardless of the Committee’s intent in releasing the report, it comes across as an attempt to distract the public’s attention from Caltrans’ failings throughout the bridge’s construction.

Next, we need to turn our attention the other end of the Bay Bridge.

  • Good News: The popular “Bay Lights” display on the western span will not end in March. Thanks to a $2 million dollar matching donation, the $4 million cost of making the installation permanent has been raised.
  • Bad News: That $4 million doesn’t include anything to cover the maintenance and power costs of the lights, estimated at $250,000. That money will be coming from bridge tolls. The same tolls that are pledged to cover maintenance of the entire bridge, including, one presumes, the “continued inspection and maintenance” of those 2,200 bolts. How long will it take for Caltrans to propose another increase in tolls to maintain “Bay Lights”?

There’s more news on the international scene.

  • Good News: President Obama is taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba. I’m too young to remember the Cuban Missle Crisis and the other Cold War era events that led to the U.S. policy of pretending Cuba didn’t exist. Maybe if I did remember those years, I’d understand how a unilateral embargo–ignored by the rest of the world–coupled with an ongoing series of incompetent attempts to foment a public uprising against Castro could possibly weaken Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union and improve conditions for its citizens.
  • Bad News: There’s no way Obama is going to get a Republican-controlled Congress to support the plan. It’ll be spun as Obama being soft on Communism and illegal immigration. Given the Right’s ongoing attempts to demonize Obama, it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts explaining in all seriousness how normalization of relations with Cuba is part of a plot to turn Americans over to alien mind-controlling lizards.

Still on the international front,

  • Bad News: Sony and theater chains have decided to shelve “The Interview”. Nobody has presented any evidence that North Korea is behind the Sony hacks, nor is there any credible evidence that the hackers could carry out their threats to bomb theaters. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sony and the theater owners have acceded to a terrorist demand despite the total lack of proof that the terrorists could actually carry out their threat. Now that the precedent has been set, look for a string of unsubstantiated bomb threats leading to the cancellation of any film project that could possibly be considered controversial.
  • Good News: By shelving “The Interview,” Sony has spared us the prospect of TSA-style security screenings at movie theaters. At least for now we’ll be spared the need to take off our shoes and wade through spilled soda and popcorn on our way through the X-ray machines.

Bay Bridge Still…

The Bay Bridge frolics continue…

Matier and Ross reported a couple of days ago that, even though the eastern span of the bridge has been open since September of 2013, there are still 170 Caltrans staff and consultants working on the bridge full time. Or, given Caltrans’ collective aversion to documenting what people working on the bridge are doing, maybe it would be more accurate to say that 170 people are still being paid for jobs related to the bridge.

That sounds worse than it actually is. There is still work going on, after all. Not just repairs–though as we know, there are a few of those going on–but also the demolition of the old bridge. But transportation planners are upfront about the real reason many of those people are still on the job. M&R quote one unnamed source as saying “They got nowhere to go.” Until new projects come along–and funding is on the decline–they stay put, doing, something or other. Presumably.

Caltrans apparently has never heard of temporary positions and layoffs are not even being considered..

Still, one Caltrans employee will be transitioning off the Bay Bridge project. Our buddy Jaxon Van Derbeken reports that Tony Anziano, the former top official will be reassigned to other projects. Yes, this is the same Tony Anziano that the California Highway Patrol determined had mishandled engineers’ complaints about bad welds. That’s apparently the extent of the “management shakeup” that was supposed to follow the CHP’s investigation.

Mark DeSaulnier, told Jaxon he was disappointed. “The biggest problem with that bridge is that nobody has ever been held accountable.” Hey, Mark, you were the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Committee until last month. Did you consider using your position to change that culture of unaccountability? Jaxon, did you ask the former state senator what he intends to do to improve Caltrans’ culture once he takes his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives?

The bridge also has some problems unrelated to construction. The Chron’s Vivian Ho has pointed out that several of the palm trees planted next to the eastern approach are showing signs of disease, and one has died. According to MTC architectural coordinator Clive Endress, a five to ten percent mortality rate is an “industry standard”. Certainly one of thirty-seven is well below that range; if the pink rot can be controlled without losing any more trees, Caltrans will be off the hook there.

Clive, who is the person who selected the palms for their “dramatic visual quality”, also pointed out that other species of trees have their own unique diseases, implying that Caltrans would be dealing with similar issues even if he had chosen a native species.

Granted, even if all of the trees died, it wouldn’t be a disaster on the scale of the Bolt Botch and assorted welding screwups, but it would have been nice if some aspect of the Bay Bridge project could have been free of problems and controversy.

If You Insist

Somebody asked me why I didn’t do a “thank you” post this year.

“I didn’t do one last year, either,” I replied.

“Then it’s really overdue. And it beats writing about sauerkraut.”

I couldn’t argue with logic like that, so here’s the 2013 thank you post. Look for the 2014 post somewhere around 2018.

Let’s start with the obvious, just to get it out of the way. I’m thankful for people who suggest blog topics. I’m especially thankful for the ones who don’t suggest that I let them write a “guest post” that would be an advertisement for whatever piece of cheap junk they’re selling at an inflated price. (Oh, look: there are three of those suggestions in the comment spam today!)

I’m always thankful for Maggie. She deserves a medal for putting up with me and this career that’s chosen me. With a little luck, the career will produce enough money for me to buy her that medal. I suppose that means I need to be thankful for her patience.

I’m thankful for all of you who come by and read what I’ve written. Even those of you whose interest begins and ends with leftover sauerkraut (still the single most popular post on the blog, with more than eleven times as many page views as the next most popular*).

* For the curious, Number Two is Crimes Against Humanity, this past July’s semi-review of Weird Al’s latest album. It does make me wonder why I keep writing about baseball and cats, when you all obviously consider my strengths to lie elsewhere. But I digress.

How about baseball management that listens to my complaints? I’m thankful to them. A week after I complained that the Mariners hadn’t done anything to improve the team, they picked up arguably the best right-handed free agent bat available. (Allow me to extend apologies to Jackie and the rest of the Orioles’ fans who were hoping their team would re-sign Nelson Cruz. Jackie, since blogging clearly works, may I suggest an impassioned plea for your guys to use some of the money they offered Cruz to lock down Markakis?)

And, speaking of baseball, I’m incredibly grateful for those of you who read the baseball posts and don’t laugh hysterically when my predictions go massively wrong. Cases in point: In recent weeks, I’ve predicted that the Ms wouldn’t sign Nelson Cruz, that the Giants would re-sign the Panda, and that the As were one of the only three teams that wouldn’t be looking for a new third baseman this winter.

And finally, I’m thankful* for Caltrans and the Bay Bridge for providing me with a source of blog posts that will never run out. Even over the Thanksgiving holiday, they were busy giving me more material.

* I’m so thankful I almost sent them a check, but then I realized that the interest they earn on the funds sitting in my FasTrak account dwarfs anything I could squeeze out of my bank account (see the earlier comment about medals and delayed gratification).

Their latest offering? Why, they’re discussing the possibility of saving millions of dollars by not tearing down all of the old bridge! That’s right: the one that they determined was seismically unsound. The one that had to be removed in order to eliminate the risk it would pose to the new bridge in a major quake. The one they promised to remove in their agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Of course, those promises were made before the bridge ran billions over budget. A chance to save a few million dollars is almost irresistible, especially if it can be done in the name of “Art” and “the betterment of the bay”. The BCDC is especially dubious about the proposal, but claims to be willing to discuss terms–including “building bridges out to walkways”. Uh, guys, do you really want to trust these folks to build more bridges?

I expect the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s negotiations with the BCDC to be a source of high comedy for months to come. Stay tuned!