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.