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.

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.

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.

Doom and Gloom

The past couple of days have been filled with chest-beating and doom-calling over the election results. And, let’s face it, most of it is justified. Turning the environment committee over to climate change denial crackpot James Inhofe, is just the most egregious example of the retreat from rationality and government as responsive to the needs of the public.

I look at the returns, and I’m almost convinced that America is doomed. Almost. When I’m at most most pessimistic, I turn to the one thing that gives me hope for the country.

No, not cute cat videos. I’m talking about the result of the city council and mayoral elections right here in Richmond, CA. This was not a Republican/Democrat battle. This was clearly and explicitly an attempt by one of the world’s largest companies to take over the city.

Chevron backed a slate of candidates to the tune of $3,000,000–that’s $72 per registered voter–in TV, billboard, and Internet ads. Their slate included council member Corky Boozé, who has refused to perform legally-mandated cleanups at his salvage yard and disparaged fellow council member Jovanka Beckles in public council meetings for her sexual orientation. Clearly Chevron considers willingness to vote their line more important than obedience to existing laws regarding environmental management and discrimination. Lovely.

What is lovely is that Chevron’s opposition–including Ms. Beckles–spent about 1/20th as much money and won in a landslide. Mayoral candidate Tom Butt pulled in 51.4 percent of the vote, trouncing Chevron’s choice, Nat Bates, who managed only 35.5 percent. All three non-Chevron candidates for city council won handily as well.

Richmond has a bad reputation. When we moved to the Bay Area, we were warned not to settle in Richmond, because of its high levels of crime, pollution, and other civic ills. But we rented an apartment in Richmond, and we’ve been here ever since. And–especially in the last few years as the mayor and city council have worked to diminish Chevron’s control–Richmond has been recovering from those civic ills.

The city’s motto is “City of Pride and Purpose”. I’ve never been more proud of this city than I am today.

Of course, all is not sugar plums and candy canes around here–although the Christmas decorations are starting to go up in the stores. There’s still that darn bridge to worry about.

Monday, our guy at the Chron, Jaxon Van Derbeken, broke the news that the final accounting of the construction of the Bay Bridge’s eastern span will come in at least $35 million over budget. Fortunately, Caltrans is promising–for now–that they won’t have to raise tolls. Instead, they’re taking money away from other projects to cover the Bay Bridge shortfall. Some of the money is coming from projects that finished under budget, including seismic refitting work on the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges, but more will be needed.

State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee called the Bay Bridge’s eastern span “the most disastrous public works project in the history of the state of California,” and it’s becoming increasingly hard to disagree.

Remember those bolts that are supposed to connect the bridge to its base? The ones that were soaking in water because they weren’t properly grouted? Last month, I said “It’s not clear at this point whether the waterproof seals were broken when the bolts were tightened, or if they were improperly applied in the first place, but either way it’s another example of Caltrans’ casual approach to testing. Wednesday, Jaxon reported that more than a quarter of the bolts are insufficiently sealed, and testing is still continuing.

At least five bolts have no grout, and Caltrans engineer Bill Casey says the total could be “as many as fifty”. The remainder have less grout than they should, typically a thin layer at the top. The theory Caltrans is pursuing for how this happened: “crews…forgot to take [temporary foam] out and pump in the grout.”

They forgot. Casey is apologetic. “Unfortunately, a mistake was made,” he told the bridge oversight committee.

Once again, let me ask the same question I’ve been asking since the orginal bolt problem surfaced: Who is responsible for QA? And a new question: Why hasn’t that person been fired for gross incompetence?

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before…

Remember back in March 2013 when I started writing about the new Bay Bridge? The news media were full of stories about bolts in the seismic stability system breaking. At the time, I said “the bolts range from 9 to 24 feet long, yet there is only 5 feet of clearance beneath the roadway. That means the bolts can’t be replaced. Again, I’m not an engineer – or an architect for that matter – but this seems like a bad design.”

Here we are eighteen months later, and we’ve just learned that a whole new set of bolts are at risk. These bolts aren’t as important as the seismic stability bolts: all these do is attach the bridge to its base. If they break, the worst that will happen is that the whole bridge will fall into the bay. Nothing critical, right?

And guess what? According to our buddy Jaxon Van Derbeken “there isn’t enough room in the tower chamber to maneuver the long replacement rods into position.” Apparently repair really wasn’t a design consideration in our shiny new bridge.

There are 423 of these bolts, and 95% of them are soaking in water because the grout that’s supposed to keep them sealed isn’t. It’s not clear at this point whether the waterproof seals were broken when the bolts were tightened, or if they were improperly applied in the first place, but either way it’s another example of Caltrans’ casual approach to testing. The bolts were installed in 2010 and some were re-tightened in 2011. Signs of corrosion were seen on the rods in 2011, but Caltrans apparently never investigated the extent of the problem.

So, add another issue to the list of things that need fixing on the Bay Bridge. Assuming that Caltrans can afford to fix it. Jaxon reported way back in August that 90% of the contingency fund for repairs had been used up. At that time, the fund was down to $90 million. And that was before the repairs for removing the rusting metal embedded in the bridge’s paint were factored in. It was also before the cost of moving the federally protected cormorants that nest in the old bridge soared to $30 million.

The new bridge includes spaces specifically-designed for the cormorants to nest in, but they’ve shown no desire to move from the old bridge to the new one. Do you suppose they’re as uneasy about the new bridge’s stability as all of the humans outside of Caltrans are?

Still, it’s not all bad news for the Bay Bridge these days. The committee overseeing the demolition of the old bridge has set aside $2.2 million to salvage 300 tons of steel for public art projects. The Oakland Museum of California, home of the old bridge’s troll, will choose the specific projects to receive the steel.

Artists around the Bay Area have been hoping for access to part of old bridge, so–assuming the cormorants can be relocated, making the steel available–this is good news.

Mind you, it could have been better news. The committee originally planned to allocate $4.4 million, but Steve Heminger, chairman of the bridge’s oversight committee, cut it in half to shore up the contingency fund. Hopefully the new problem bolts won’t require the committee to contribute the remaining money as well.

BBBB–Criminally Bad?

Didn’t expect a Bay Bridge update quite so soon after the last one, did you? Well, stuff is happening, and I feel an obligation to keep you informed, hopefully before the news is totally stale.

As in the past, most of my information comes from Jaxon Van Derbeken’s excellent articles in the SF Chronicle. I’ll call out the exception to that rule when I get there.

On Friday the First, Jaxon reported that the state Senate’s investigative report on the Bay Bridge mess included accusations from engineers that Caltrans reassigned them to other projects when they tried to report problems. Caltrans’ response to the accusations? According to Jaxon, Director Malcolm Dougherty “said that ‘there could have been better communication amongst the team.” Even better, “Failure to do that [ensure that all team members were aware of how decisions were made] … could lead to a sense of isolation in some cases, but that is not retaliation.”

Really? Assigning someone to a different project is a form of communication? I suppose one could make that case. It’s certainly an area where the form of the communication conveys more information than the communication itself.

Jaxon’s article on Tuesday the Fifth, ahead of a state Senate hearing, reiterates the accusations of banishing engineers with safety concerns about the bridge, and adds that an independent engineering panel is concerned about Caltrans’ quality control process on the bridge. That’s not exactly news–we’ve been questioning Caltrans’ QA since Day One–but the panel is calling for a complete risk analysis “to pinpoint the likely weakest link on the span in an earthquake.” This is not a standard procedure for bridges, although it is for complex, high-risk structures such as nuclear power plants and offshore oil platforms.

Caltrans continued to maintain that they did “almost nothing wrong”. Tellingly, according to Jaxon, that claim is limited to construction; Caltrans is silent on whether they did anything wrong in regard to management and testing.

As we’ve heard before, engineers reporting problems were ordered to report orally, rather than to leave a paper trail. If QA engineers were routinely required to report verbally, that would certainly explain why there doesn’t seem to be any QA documentation that Caltrans could display to settle questions of wrongdoing.

Wednesday, state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly told the Senate committee he has directed the California Highway Patrol to investigate the charges of retaliation and hiding evidence of problems. It’s an administrative investigation, not a criminal inquiry, but presumably if the investigation uncovers evidence of criminal behavior, a new investigation could be launched. The committee’s chairman, Senator Mark DeSaulnier, said that he intends to turn over the committee’s report to state and federal prosecutors “to determine whether criminal charges are merited against anyone involved in the bridge project.”

Malcom Dougherty’s response according to Jaxon: “[He] said there was nothing to merit such a probe. ‘I don’t have evidence of criminal activity.'”

Gotcha, Malcolm. We’ll be happy to take your word for the fact that Caltrans didn’t do anything criminal. There’s certainly no need for an independent investigation. Fox guarding the hen house, anyone?

And the latest salvo in the battle: On Sunday, the Chronicle’s conservative voice, Debra J. Saunders, wrote an opinion piece strongly hinting that she believes Governor Brown, Mayor Brown, and other (mostly Democratic) politicians should be held legally accountable for the Bay Bridge’s twenty-four year, $6.4 billion dollar construction. After all, she says “After the 1994 Northridge quake, GOP Gov. Pete Wilson…got needed bridge repairs done in 66 days.”

Gosh, Debra, why didn’t Pete shortcut the Bay Bridge too? Last time I checked, 1994 was smack in between the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 2013 completion of the bridge. If you’re going to start assigning culpability to politicians for Caltrans’ “culture of mismanagement,” at least be even-handed about it, and share the blame with everyone who has theoretically overseen Caltrans during the past quarter-century.

In fairness, Debra did report one new piece of information. According to her, Transportation Secretary Kelly claims the new bridge is twice as safe as the old one. I have to agree with Senator DeSaulnier, who considers that rather less safety than we paid for.

Hey, Lior was in town last week and rode across the Bay Bridge a couple of times. Did you feel safe on the bridge? Do you feel less safe in retrospect? (Disclaimer: Although Lior is a QA engineer, as far as I know, he’s not trained in construction or other large-scale physical engineering disciplines.) Aren’t you glad BART wasn’t on strike, putting another few hundred thousand people on the bridge with you?

Summing up: We’ve reached the point where people are openly discussing criminal charges related to the construction of the new Bay Bridge. That goes well beyond anything I expected when I started writing about the Bolt Botch last year. Here’s a charming thought for you: If there’s a significantly-sized quake in the next few years, and anyone is injured or killed on the Bay Bridge, who gets sued? And, more to the point, who should get sued?

BBBB: Extra Innings

Finally, some significant action on the Bay Bridge.

There’s been a steady stream of small items–well, small when compared against the bridge’s $6 billion price tag–but nothing with any, you should excuse the expression, earthshaking implications. Until now.

But let’s do this chronologically to make sure we don’t leave out anything important.

Except as noted, all of my information comes from Jaxon Van Derbeken’s articles in the SF Chronicle. Yay for Jaxon!

On June 9, Jaxon reported that state documents show that Caltrans paid “millions of dollars over the original bid price” and accepted responsibility for the delays caused by rework. Put another way, in public Caltrans was blaming the problems on contractors, but privately accepting liability. Sweet deal for the contractors, huh? Those millions of dollars included payment for repair and rework, settlements for delays in approving work, and in at least one case, training for contractor’s employees. The workers didn’t show up for the training, but does it really matter? It only cost Caltrans $500,000 of toll revenue, after all. Heck, all of those cost overruns and special payments will come out of toll money. At least the costs of building the bridge, covering up the defects, and rebuilding it to fix the defects are being covered by the people using the bridge instead of taxpayers across the state. Way to show fiscal responsibility, Caltrans.

Next, on July 11, we learned of more problems and their accompanying price tag. Tiny particles of steel are embedded in the bridge’s white paint. Those particles are rusting; that causes structural damage, but more importantly, it makes the signature $6 billion bridge look grimy. Can’t have that. The steel particles are present as the result of grinding parts during assembly. It’s common practice to put down plastic sheets to protect surfaces around grinding work, but Caltrans elected not to do so, citing possible risk to motorists on the old bridge if one of the sheets got loose. That’s another $500,000 dollars of toll money being spent on remedial work that could have been avoided with proper oversight and planning.

Let us move on to July 24, when the bridge’s chief designer told the bridge oversight committee that it’s safe to leave the 2,000 bolts and rods in place. He’s apparently basing his recommendation on the the tests Caltrans has been conducting since last year. Those tests are still going on, but apparently Mr. Nader is confident that the tests won’t uncover any problems. Isn’t assuming the result of testing how we got into this mess in the first place? Over and over we’ve heard that tests weren’t done or the result of testing can’t be found. How about just this once we finish the planned testing before we start making recommendations?

That brings to the latest news. According to an unsigned editorial in today’s paper, state Senator Mark DeSaulnier is calling for a federal criminal investigation into the bridge’s construction to determine “where the money went”. I gave kudos to Senator DeSaulnier last September for calling for a discussion of what went wrong. On the other hand, back in May when the concept of grease caps came up, he jumped on the “no more testing, just grease everything” bandwagon. I said at the time, “Hey Senator…focus on finding out who dropped the ball in the first place.” Looks like he listened to me.

So stick around the ballpark. The Bay Bridge Bolt Botch Blame Game is heading into extra innings. It ain’t over until Yogi Berra sings.