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.

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.

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?