Two Steps Forward, One Step Sideways

I suppose this could be considered a Short Attention Span Theater post, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think about that.

Step One: The Bay Bridge is still standi–no, wait, I’ve used that joke before. Never mind.

Seriously, the Bay Bridge did take a step forward this week. The bike path between Yerba Buena Island and Oakland is now open seven days a week. That’s actually a very big step.

Mind you, it doesn’t help would-be bike commuters. The path is only open from 6 AM to 8 PM. Any techies planning to bike in for their usual seventy-two hour week are likely to hit the barrier in one direction or the other.

Well, actually, they’re going to discover that there’s still no connection between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, so unless they’ve got an amphibious bike, they’re only going to get halfway to work. Of course, if they do have one of those gadgets, they don’t need the bike path in the first place. Never mind.

It’s unclear to me whether there’s a plan to open the path at night, and according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a bike path on the western span is at least a decade away. But a scenic ride that’s available seven days a week is a decided improvement over one that’s only open on weekends.

Step Two: I said Tuesday that I would be having signings outside of Seattle. I can now announce the second scheduled event.

On Sunday, July 16, I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I’ll talk for a while about Scott Joplin and ragtime music, do a Q&A session, and then sign books.

This is breaking news, folks. Borderlands doesn’t even have it on their website yet.

But if you can’t make it to Sedalia or Seattle, I’ll look forward to seeing you in San Francisco.

And who knows, maybe I can arrange a signing in a city that doesn’t start with an “S”.

Step Minus One: Have you heard that McDonald’s has invented a new eating utensil? You probably have, but if not, the inevitable commercial is here.

Yeah. The “frork”.

As one might expect, the Internet is up in arms about this. To the extent that there’s ever a consensus online, it seems to be that this is the stupidest idea ever.

Having waded through more dumb Kickstarter projects than I can count, I disagree.

Seriously. I just can’t get upset about the frork. Come on, folks, it’s an advertising gimmick. It’s served it’s purpose: getting people talking about McDonald’s.

It doesn’t look like a frork uses any more plastic than the usual fast food restaurant’s plastic fork/spork/spoon, so where’s the harm?

Mind you, it is–as McDonald’s admits–completely superfluous. Toppings that drip out of a fast food burger (or even a slow food burger, IMNSHO) are meant to be scooped up with and licked off of an index finger. Preferably your own–or your date’s*, but whatever floats your boat. Personally, I think fries should be eaten with the fingers as well, but I’m not dogmatic about it.

* But not in a Tom Lehrer/”I Hold Your Hand In Mine” kind of way, please. Even if you’re a zombie, that sort of behavior doesn’t qualify as proper restaurant manners.

So, yeah, not the end of civilization. Not even a serious attempt at bread and circuses.

I’m Back

No, the crisis isn’t over, but it’s sufficiently under control that I’m starting to suffer symptoms of writing withdrawal*. Rather than endure that, I’m declaring the hiatus done. I’ll have more to say about the situation later, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

* Nightmares in which I realize I’ve forgotten how to type and have to write a 90,000 word manuscript longhand. Overwhelming impulses to edit something I said an hour ago because I just thought of the perfect word. Waking up in the middle of the night with a story idea and not being able to write it down because a cat has run off with my pen–no, wait, that’s business as usual.

Moving on.

Something actually went right for the Bay Bridge this weekend. Friday, Caltrans made the long-awaited announcement that the bike and pedestrian path from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island would actually reach the island on Sunday. Monday, Chron writer Jessica Floum confirmed the removal of the dead end that’s been in place for the past three years.

This is a major victory for Caltrans. This is the first component of the bridge to be completed as scheduled!

Well, sort of. The trail was supposed to open along with the bridge in 2013. It did, but stopped about half a mile short of the island. Then it was supposed to open when the old bridge span was fully demolished. Uh… The demolition is still going on–and, thanks to poisonous fumes released by the deconstruction work, the bike path will only be open on weekends and holidays until the work is done.

But that’s nitpicking. The important point here is that Caltrans resisted the urge to make yet another date prediction, only to discover they couldn’t meet their target. Keeping their mouths shut until they were sure may not sound like much, but it actually represents a process improvement. At the risk of reading too much into it, this could even be a sign that Caltrans is beginning to fix their dysfunctional culture of failure.

Yeah, I know: Once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy actionlegitimacy. But you have to do anything once before you can do it a second and third time. Keep it up, Caltrans! We’re rooting for you.

Moving on.

It’s been 107 years since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and 70 years since they last played and lost. It’s been 67 years since the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, though they’ve managed to lose three World Series since then, running up a combined 7-12 record. Not exactly stellar performances by either city.

But, as Jackie implied recently, somebody has to be MLB’s champion this year.

The only possibilities are the Cubs and the Indians. Sometime between Saturday and next Wednesday, somebody’s record of futility will come to an end.

It puts those of us with no sentimental or geographic attachment to either team in an awkward position. There’s a natural tendency to root for the underdog, but it’s not clear who that is. The Cubs have had excellent regular seasons the past two years, unlike the Indians, who struggled to a .500 record last year. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook a century-long track record–no concerns about small sample sizes here!

You can make up your own minds–and Jackie’s post includes some good arguments on both sides–but I’m going to be rooting for Chicago for one simple reason: Cleveland, by and large, has suffered in silence. They lose, make the obligatory mumbles about next year, and move on. Chicago, on the other hand, whines and blames anything except their play on the field. Who else blames their losses on a goat? Or their fans–poor Steve Bartman?

I figure if the Cubs finally win a World Series, their fans will have to shut up, and we’ll get some peace and quiet.

Game One is at 5:00 (Pacific) tonight. Go Cubs! Let’s win it–in seven games, of course.

Riddle Me This, Caltrans

Here’s a riddle for you: When is corrosion on the Bay Bridge not on the bridge? The answer is “When it’s in a tunnel.”

And another–or maybe it’s more of a koan: When is bridge corrosion not Caltrans’ fault?

As usual, all credit for the reporting goes to our buddy Jaxon Van Derbeken.

A tunnel on a bridge? Well, yeah. A quick recap for those of you unfamiliar with the details of the Bay Bridge’s architecture. The Bay Bridge is actually two bridges and a tunnel. In the east, we’ve got a bridge burdened with botched bolts and creeping corrosion. On the west, another bridge burdened with an unfortunate name. In between, Yerba Buena Island, home of the largest single-bore tunnel in the world. The tunnel, just to be explicit, connects the two bridges. The western span of the bridge and the tunnel were built in the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA; the eastern span was, of course, built under the careful supervision of Caltrans.

On January 30, a chunk of concrete fell off the tunnel wall into a traffic lane, where it did severe damage to a Ford Fusion’s tires, undercarriage, and driver’s psyche. Caltrans quickly identified the cause of the problem: corrosion caused some of the reinforcing rods in the concrete walls to expand, stressing the concrete until the chunk popped loose.

Caltrans initially downplayed the incident. Jaxon quotes Deputy District Director Dan McElhinney as having said that “…at this point in time, there’s nowhere else in the tunnel where there is an issue.” However, Caltrans did do the right thing and survey the entire tunnel.

Last week, Jaxon revealed that the survey found a dozen spots where concrete is in danger of breaking loose–and that may not be the extent of the problem. The testing method used was to tap the concrete with a hammer and listen for hollow sounds*. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work where the concrete is painted, nor will it find patches of corrosion before they get large enough to endanger the concrete.

* Silly as it sounds, this is apparently the standard test procedure. Kudos to Caltrans for using it, rather than immediately jumping to expensive, high-tech methods.

So now Caltrans needs to go to those expensive, high-tech methods to test the rest of the tunnel. No word yet on how much that’s likely to cost, but Caltrans says it’ll be paid for out of an existing pool of funds earmarked for Bay Area bridge rehabilitation projects.

The immediate cause of the corrosion is rainwater flowing through drainage holes in the upper deck of the tunnel, infiltrating the Masonite pads that cushion the deck, and then migrating into the walls.

So, back to that koan. Is the tunnel corrosion Caltrans’ fault? It’s arguable. The tunnel was built before Caltrans existed. For that matter, the upper deck was installed in 1964, eight years before the California Departments of Public Works and Aeronautics merged to become Caltrans. According to Jaxon, Caltrans doesn’t even have documentation of the drainage system, which certainly limits their ability to predict danger points.

On the other hand, this sort of water-induced decay is a well-known problem in tunnels, and–as we’ve heard several times recently–preventative maintenance isn’t one of Caltrans’ strong suits. While they did inspect the tunnel last July, it was just a visual inspection. The last time the “hammer test” was done was 2004–before construction on the new eastern span was even begun.

Again, I’m not an engineer, but a twelve year gap between inspections sounds excessive, especially since I haven’t seen any indication that a hammer test was even under consideration before the incident on January 30.

Regardless of whether the corrosion is Caltrans’ fault, it’s unquestionably their problem. Here’s hoping for a speedy resolution with far fewer delays and cost overruns than we’ve seen on the bridge so far.

Good News for Caltrans

Let’s continuing Thursday’s focus on more positive news.

Here’s something I was quite sure I’d never be able to say: Caltrans has gotten something right with the Bay Bridge! I know it’s hard to believe, but apparently it’s true.

You may recall that in October, our good friend Jaxon alerted us to a new risk to the bridge: corrosion of the main cable. (If you need to refresh your memory, my post is here. The TL;DR is water was leaking in through the bridge’s guardrails, thanks, at least in part, to a design change.)

Now Jaxon is back with more. According to his latest article, Caltrans spent $1.4 million on sealant, trying to plug the leaks. That fix didn’t do the job, and on further investigation, they discovered that the design change initially blamed for allowing water to reach the cable actually had nothing to do with the problem.

It turned out that water was simply flowing through the gap between the guardrail and the roadbed. The fix: apply industrial-strength caulk to the gap–the same thing you might use to repair a leaky window. The cost: a mere $100,000.

All is not sweetness and light, of course. This is Caltrans, after all. The caulk will need to be replaced every seven years or so, and as we learned in December, ongoing maintenance isn’t one of Caltrans’ strong suits. But it does buy Caltrans time to research more permanent approaches to resolving the problem.

Nor, IMNSHO, does this cheap fix entirely make up for the earlier non-fix of the wrong problem. In fairness, root cause analysis can be tricky, and nobody gets it right all the time. But I can’t help but wonder how much corrosion monitoring on Caltrans’ other bridges that $1.4 million would have bought.

It’s a shame Caltrans can’t use the same caulk to fix the leaks in the bridge’s foundation. Unfortunately, that’s a totally different problem.

All negativism aside, though, I’m very glad to see a change from the constant stream of bad news about the bridge.

Two years, four months, and twenty-three days down; one hundred forty-seven years, seven months, and eight days to go to reach the designed lifetime.

Life’s Little Lessons

A couple of life’s little lessons.

Trader Joe’s recently introduced “Organic Triple Ginger Instant Oatmeal”. They also have Triple Ginger Snaps, Triple Ginger Brew (though that’s been temporarily pulled from the shelves while they look for a way to keep the bottles from exploding on the shelves), and quite a variety of less-than-triple ginger goodies.

At least at TJ’s, ginger is replacing pumpkin as the go-to flavor for Winter. I regard this as a good thing, and I hope the idea spreads. Note that I’ve got nothing against the combination of flavors known as “pumpkin spice”. IMNSHO, it only goes downhill when pumpkin is added to the spices. But I digress.

The oatmeal is tasty stuff, even mixed 50/50 with plain oatmeal, as I tend to do. (I’m mostly trying to cut down on the sugar; as is the case with most flavored oatmeal, sugar is a significant chunk of the flavoring. Making each box last twice as long is a bonus.)

What’s the lesson? Patience. I’m getting there.

Yesterday I tried an experiment. Could triple ginger oatmeal be further improved by the addition of blueberries? You probably won’t be surprised to hear the answer: yes. Blueberries, even out of season ones, as these were, make many breakfast foods better.


If you’re adding blueberries to your oatmeal–ginger or otherwise–do not put the berries in the bowl until after it comes out of the microwave. No, let me amend that rule. If you want your oatmeal to look like a prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, by all means, go ahead and add the berries before nuking.

Microwaved blueberries, you see, explode, filling your oatmeal with red juice, almost exactly the color of fresh blood. Disturbing. Also, difficult to wash off the bowl. At least it turns purple as it dries.

Lesson learned.

Moving on.

On December 17, after months–years, even–of declaring the eastern span of the Bay Bridge perfectly safe and capable of meeting its intended 150-year lifespan, the oversight panel voted to consider installing a corrosion protection system on at least some of the most vulnerable parts of the bridge. Yes, the very same system they voted against back in October.
The reason for their change of heart? It’s not, as one might hope, because they sincerely believe it’s necessary. Will Kempton–former head of Caltrans–said “…it’s a matter of public confidence.” In other words, it’ll make the general public feel safer. Sounds a lot like what the panel said last month, about the media’s “misleading” coverage of the bridge and the Bolt Botch, doesn’t it? Kudos to Mr. Kempton for consistency, at least.

The other reason for the panel’s apparent change of heart is less reassuring. The plan adopted in October was to monitor corrosion and take action as part of the bridge’s ongoing, regular maintenance. However, Brian Maroney–Caltrans’ chief engineer for the eastern span project–pointed out that Caltrans sucks at monitoring their bridges. (Yes, that’s a paraphrase.) More specifically, he said that only one of the nine bridges with a monitoring system is checked on an annual basis, because there isn’t enough money. And it’s not just corrosion monitoring that doesn’t happen because Caltrans can’t afford it. Mr. Maroney said that “lots” of earthquake motion sensors are turned off when the economy is down.

Imagine that. Caltrans pays millions of dollars for safety equipment, and then doesn’t have enough money to use it. Shocking.

The article in the Chron quotes a nationally-known corrosion expert, Jack Tinnea, as saying that corrosion inspections are federally mandated. To this non-lawyer, that suggests Mr. Kempton, as a former head of Caltrans, might be liable for some of those inspections that haven’t happened. He doesn’t seem to be worried about the possibility, so maybe I’m wrong.

Yes, there is a lesson here.

Getting what you want for the wrong reason isn’t very satisfying.

I’m glad to see Caltrans and the Bay Bridge’s oversight board opening up to outside advice. Even this tiny bit is good–one has to start somewhere, after all. But knowing it’s the board’s way of patting the general public on the head and saying “There, there. Everything’s going to be OK,” doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that we’ll get any answers to our vexing questions.

Pass the oatmeal, please.

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.

Breaking News

Breaking news! Bay Bridge at risk! Possibility of major structural breakdown!

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Amazingly, this one has nothing to do with bolts.

I know not everyone is as fascinated as I am by the ongoing soap opera that is the Bay Bridge, so I try to limit the updates to one a month at most. Sometimes, though, I just can’t hold off. This is one of those times.

On Sunday the fourth, our go-to guy for all that is the BBBB, Jaxon Van Derbeken, reported that the lead designer of the firm that designed the bridge, Marwan Nader, warned Caltrans that leaks in the guardrail system are allowing water to drip onto the bridge’s main cable. Yes, lest we forget, the Bay Bridge is a suspension bridge. The main cable is what holds the bridge up.

According to Jaxon, Nader delivered the warning Caltrans in July, although minutes of the meeting were only released recently. He specifically called out the “splay boxes” where the cable strands spread out and attach to the roadbed. The splay boxes are supposed to be sealed to prevent water from getting to the cable, but holes that are part of the system that anchors the guardrail are allowing rain to drip into the splay boxes. These are, by the way, the same supposedly-sealed boxes that were left open to the elements for most of 2012, during construction. A senior bridge engineer warned Caltrans that water was pooling in the boxes in May of 2012, but they weren’t sealed until December.

There is a dehumidification system in place, which Caltrans says is sufficient. Nader disagrees. As usual, there’s no independent third-party opinion available. And, as usual, the situation is even more complicated. Brian Maroney, the bridge’s chief engineer said in March that he had “recently learned” that “a key element” of the bridge’s drainage system had been eliminated, which adds to the amount of water leaking through the guardrail system.

So, once again, we have a design change that the chief engineer wasn’t aware of, a problem that’s been known in one form or another for several years, and–as far as I can tell from Jaxon’s article–no plan to do anything about it.

But wait, there’s more!

Just over a week later, Jaxon revealed that it’s not only the ends of the cable that are at risk.

According to a panel of independent maintenance experts, the entire cable is endangered.

The group, which includes bridge officials from New York, Hong Kong, and Scotland, completed a yearlong review of the Bay Bridge. Their report notes that suspension bridge cables are vulnerable to corrosion, but because the Bay Bridge’s cable is wrapped in a protective steel jacket, it’s impossible to inspect the cable for rust. They recommend an immediate retrofit–at a cost of tens of millions of dollars–to make it possible for inspectors to get to the cable and to install a dehumidification system for the entire length of the cable.

Fun, huh?

The critique gets better (or worse, depending on how you feel about watching disasters in the making). The panel also called out several other areas where inspection of important bridge components is difficult or impossible, including the supporting cables, which cross over the bridge roadway, and the steel “tendons” that hold the skyway together. Similar tendons on London’s Hammersmith flyover were exposed to salt water, causing corrosion which was only discovered when an acoustic monitoring system was installed.

We’ve been talking about design decisions that make some parts of the bridge impossible to repair since the very first Bay Bridge Bolt Botch revelations. Now we’ve got critical elements that can’t be inspected to see if they need replacing. Delightful.

As usual, let me point out that none of these problems pose any immediate danger to the bridge or the people driving across it. There is time to implement protective measures.

All Caltrans has to do is spend some money–something they haven’t had any trouble with in the past. Oh, but first they need to admit there’s a problem. That’s been rather harder for them.

Well, That’s Just Fine

It’s October, and you know what that means: your two and a half month respite from my bitching about the Bay Bridge is over. Don’t run away–we’ve officially reached the point where one can only shake one’s head in wonder.

Last week, Caltrans finally admitted that a long-term fix is necessary for the steel rods that have been soaking in Bay water since they were installed. The cost? A mere $15-25 million. Excluding the cost of ongoing monitoring and maintenance and a proposed study of the long-term risks of saltwater corrosion. But whats a couple of dozen millions of dollars among friends? Bridge tolls are, apparently, a source of endless funds for such tweaks.

* Mind you, Caltrans still maintains that the rods aren’t actually necessary, that the bridge can ride out a major earthquake without them. Nobody has explained why they were included in the design if they aren’t needed. I can only assume that they’re a “suspenders and belt” item, something to provide redundant security. So without the rods, we’d be hoping the Bay Bridge’s belt will keep its pants from falling down despite the lack of suspenders.

The next day, the Bay Bridge oversight panel voted to accept the bridge construction as complete, which ends primary contractor American Bridge/Fluor’s involvement in the project. At the same time, the panel fined American Bridge/Fluor $11 million for what panel chair Steve Heminger called “elements in the cost and quality [of the bridge] that were substandard.” He’s talking about broken bolts, inadequate grouting, non-functional elevators, flawed paint jobs, improper welds, and all of the other glitches we’ve covered here over the last several years. With AB/F’s role complete, any further work, including repairs and maintenance, will be done by a new contractor. Hopefully the contract will require them to perform (and document) testing to ensure their work is up to standard. Oh, wait, it was Caltrans that either failed to test or failed to document the testing of AB/F’s work. Never mind.

Most of that fine is to partially reimburse Caltrans for the seismic refit–the famous “saddle”–installed in 2013 to replace the functionality of the original broken bolts. (The architectural firm that designed the bridge has also been fined $8 million for their role in the broken bolt fiasco. It’s not stated exactly what the oversight panel thinks their role was; I’m guessing it’s for producing a design that made it impossible to replace the flawed rods.)

Back when the bridge opened in September of 2013, American Bridge/Fluor received a bonus for meeting that arbitrary date. The bonus was nearly $49 million, more than four times last week’s fine. Apparently the oversight commission doesn’t believe that there’s a connection between meeting the launch date and the “substandard” quality of the work.

Moving on.

The argument over what caused the tower rod to break continues. Independent engineers still say that hydrogen embrittlement is the most likely culprit, while Caltrans’ engineers blame bending and overtightening. That particular debate produced the single most boggling statement to come out of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch. According to Brian Maroney, chief engineer on the bridge, there’s no reason to settle the question. Because only one bolt has broken, it’s not worth spending any money to definitively establish why it broke.

Think about that for a moment. The bridge’s chief engineer doesn’t think it’s important to find out what went wrong. If he doesn’t know why the rod broke, how does he know his $15 million dollar fix will keep the remaining rods intact? Oh, right, he doesn’t care because they’re not essential.

Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.

BBBB Snippets

It’s time, I’m afraid. I’ve put it off as long as I can, hoping for some new information. There is something new today–not much, but since the pile of newspaper clippings is threatening to avalanche down and bury my writing desk, I think it’s time for a Bay Bridge update. Brace yourselves.

For those of you who might be bored with the bridge, here’s the tl;dr: As far as we know, the Bay Bridge is perfectly safe for daily use. If there’s a significant earthquake, it might fail.

Ready? As usual, most of the information comes courtesy of Jaxon Van Derbeken’s articles in the SF Chronicle. All praise to Jaxon.

There’s a lot of redundancy in the reports, so I’ll summarize chronologically.

  • 2015-05-08 – One of the rods anchoring the Bay Bridge to its foundation has failed under testing. The integrity test was done because the rods were improperly sealed and have been sitting in salt water for years. Engineers feared they might have become corroded. The rod will be tested to determine whether it was corroded. There is also some evidence that there may be cracks in the foundation allowing salt water to attack the steel rebar embedded in the foundation itself.
  • 2015-05-09 – An unsigned editorial supports U.S. Rep Mark DeSaulnier’s call for an independent expert review managed by the federal Department of Transportation.
  • 2015-05-10 – Caltrans continues to state that the bridge is safe and the anchor rods aren’t actually necessary to support it. Independent engineers are dubious and think an independent review should be done, if only to address why Caltrans spent so much money on “unnecessary” rods.
  • 2015-05-10 – Matier and Ross quote Metropolitan Transportation Commission chief Steve Heminger as calling the Bay Bridge “the projext from hell,” and saying “…when it comes to quality control, we are just not getting our money’s worth.”
  • 2015-05-12 – The MTC approves spending up to $4 million in toll revenue to test the broken rod.
  • 2015-05-15 – Traffic is so slow on the bridge in the morning that the Bay Area regional transit is studying the possibility of changing one of the eastbound lanes out of the city into a westbound transit-only lane during the morning commute. It would require a number of changes, including the installation of a moveable barrier similar to the one that was recently installed on the Golden Gate Bridge; the estimated cost for the entire suite of changes is between $51 million and $177 million. The proposal is far from adoption, but will be studied further.
  • 2015-05-17 – The broken rod is six inches shorter than it should be, suggesting that it broke, rather than having been properly anchored. Now that funds have been allocated, it will be removed for testing shortly.
  • 2015-05-21 – Visual inspection of the rod by independent engineers suggests it shows corrosion patterns similar to those on the original broken bolts back in 2013. Caltrans refuses to agree or disagree until formal testing is done.
  • 2015-05-28 – The Warriors won the NBA’s Western Conference titleOne of the Bay Bridge’s anchor rods failed while being strength tested. It will have to be tested to determine whether corrosion was the cause of the failure.
  • 2015-06-04 – The failed anchor rod broke because it had a bad thread, not because of corrosion, unlike earlier failures. The bad news is that Caltrans’ quality control processes didn’t spot the incorrect threading. The article quotes an independent engineer as saying that many of the rods cannot be replaced if they fail because there isn’t enough space to remove them and place new ones.
  • 2015-06-05 – Roughly a quarter of the rods that connect the bridge to its foundation are sitting in corrosive salt water. Three of the rods have failed–i.e. broken–since the bridge opened two years ago.
  • 2015-06-10 – Remember a while back when the powers that be decided to make some of the metal from the old bridge available to artists? Matier and Ross report that the cost to strip off toxic lead paint, cut up the metal, and deliver it to the artists will run $2.2 million and be funded from bridge tolls. I’m hoping that somebody has requested a set of bolts from the old bridge to be sculpted into caricatures of the politicians and members of the bridge design committees who insisted on a “signature” design.
  • 2015-06-24 – Caltrans admitted that the broken rods show signs of hydrogen embrittlement similar to the original 2013 bolt failures and agreed that the problem could be widespread and put the foundation at risk in an earthquake. Brian Maroney, the chief engineer on the bridge project, told the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that the rods could be replaced, repaired, or modified. Replacement would, of course, be expensive. The committee decided not to allocate funds to clean and protect the rods until a panel of experts reports in.
  • 2015-07-10 – The panel agreed to spend $1.1 million to develop a plan to prevent further damage to the rods, despite the fact that a seismic review panel stated that the bridge doesn’t actually need the rods. At least toll-payers will be getting a lot for their money. It’ll cover the design of a dehumidification system, find a grout or other chemical that will keep water away from the rods, conduct further tests on the extent of the embrittlement, and buy “jacking equipment” that can be used in testing and repair. Are they really planning to jack the bridge up off its foundation to replace the rods? If so, I trust they’ll at least close it to traffic while the work is in progress…
  • 2015-07-16 – The rubber that covers the expansion joint at the west end of the eastern span of the bridge apparently has an affinity for traffic warning flares. Twice this week a lit flare has rolled against the cover, setting it on fire. Keep in mind that this is still at the level of coincidence–once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action (or in this case, a new bridge failure mode)–but it certainly seems perfectly in character for the Bay Bridge. Maybe the California Highway Patrol should start a program to develop LED-based warning lights to replace their flares.

The fun continues. Stay tuned.

One Small Step Forward

OMG, OMG, OMG! We’re starting to see signs that the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch is finally moving into Act Two!

The transition is just barely getting started, but still… Get this: we’re seeing finger-pointing and disclaimers of responsibility as part of the revelation of the latest problem! Seems like Caltrans and its contractors are getting just as sick of Act One as we are.

The latest problem is actually a new facet of one we already knew about. Remember those improperly-grouted rods that had been soaking in rainwater for years? The ones that were showing some signs of cracks? The ones that can’t be replaced, and are responsible for the stability of the bridge tower? Yeah, those rods.

The water was pumped out, but it came back. And no, our drought hasn’t broken. It’s not rain. Wait, it gets better: tests of the new water show a chloride level much higher than the earlier water. Chloride is a significant cause of corrosion, and the levels found in the water are high enough that independent experts are questioning the long-term viability of the rods.

So where’s the water coming from now?

Caltrans blames the bridge’s primary contractor, American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises, saying both that they put water into the rods’ sleeves after they had been pumped out and that “unexpected and unauthorized” water was tricking in, presumably through those same failed groutings.

For their part–and this is where we’re seeing the finger-pointing–American Bridge/Fluor claims that there are cracks in the concrete of the tower’s foundation. Since the foundation was built by Kiewit, another contractor, American Bridge/Fluor’s argument is that they’re not responsible for the water, or the potential failure of the rods.

The level of chloride in the water strongly suggests seawater as the source. Not that it would let American Bridge/Fluor off the hook for the original grout problem, but in classic finger-pointing mode, that’s beside the point.

As of Jaxon’s article in yesterday’s Chron, Kiewit apparently hadn’t weighed in with their own accusation. Stay tuned. My guess: they’ll point their own finger at the concrete supplier. 50/50 odds whether the word “thug” will figure in the discussion.