Transit Talk

Shall we start with some good news? I think we should.

Word from the engineers studying the Transbay Transit Center beam cracks is that they’ve ruled out a design flaw as the cause of the problem. That means once the cracked beams are repaired (or, presumably, replaced) we should get decades of use out of the terminal.

Granted, we still don’t know what the underlying problem is or how long repairs will take. In theory, we’ll know the answer to the first question by the end of November–but don’t forget the difference between theory and practice. And, although the engineers are already planning repair procedures based on a variety of likely scenarios, implementing those plans could still take months.

But let’s focus on the positives here. Based on what we know now, unlike the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, the TTC’s problem seems to be limited in scope and unlikely to recur. That’s a big win.

To be fair, however, all is not sweetness and light in TTC-Land. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority–an alias for the city’s district supervisors–voted to withhold tax money that had been slated to go toward the next phase of the Transit Center*. The SFCTA is also calling for an investigation of the whole project and the Joint Powers Authority, which currently oversees the TTC.

* Laying new railroad tracks to bring Caltrain into the Transit Center.

An extended delay could permanently derail the train project (sorry). That would make the TTC a mindbogglingly expensive bus-only project.

Stay tuned to see how this one plays out.

Meanwhile, BART is taking steps to ensure that we don’t lack for expensive transit projects to worry about. They’re about to present plans for a second connection between San Francisco and the East Bay.

I hesitate to call it a second Transbay Tube, as early reports suggest it could be an above-ground project associated with one of the existing auto bridges.

According to the Chron, construction wouldn’t even start for another decade, which does make me wonder if we’re going to get a reprise of the Bay Bridge’s extended design and implementation. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to see them rush in and give us something half-assed.

Still, ten years of planning should produce plenty of blog fodder. That’s a good thing, I think.

And one final Bay Area transportation note. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is considering a plan to do away with toll booths.

No, that doesn’t mean doing away with tolls. Don’t be silly.

The goal would be to go to all-electronic toll collection, something that’s already been done on about 20% of the country’s bridges and tunnels.

There are some good arguments around cost savings and safety to be made in favor of the change, but there are also some unanswered questions to be dealt with.

Most notably, in a region as heavily dependent on tourism as the Bay Area, how does electronic collection work for someone driving a rental car? I hope the MTC isn’t figuring that Uber and Lyft are going to put Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise out of business any time soon.

I also wonder just how much support the MTC will have for some of the ideas they’re considering under an all-electronic toll regime. Congestion pricing is never popular, but I could see it happening.

But implementing tolls on traffic in both directions seems like a plan designed for failure. If you thought the gas tax caused a major upset, just wait until voters hear that a round trip across the Bay Bridge is going to cost $15.

BART had better hurry up with that second Bay crossing. When the price tag for driving hits two or three times what transit costs, we might actually get a few drivers off the road. (Yeah, I know. That’s my optimistic side speaking.)

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.

If You Insist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bits and Pieces

I’m going to continue Friday’s “short notes” theme with some updates on continuing issues.

Leading off: BART workers are not on strike. No, there isn’t a settlement. Management’s lead negotiator left the table about 8:15 Sunday night, and everyone else knocked off about 15 minutes later. Management asked Governor Brown to impose a 60 day “cooling off period” to block a strike. Instead, he blocked a strike for a week and appointed a three-person panel to “investigate” the talks. During the week-long investigation, both sides will have to present their offers and reasons for supporting or opposing the cooling off period to the board. More details in a story at SFGate. So I was right that there would not be a deal by today, but wrong that there would actually be a strike. I also predicted that a deal would be reached late Wednesday with service resuming on Friday. The governor has charged negotiators to continue meeting while the board investigation continues, so it’s still possible that a settlement could be reached Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Regardless of one’s feelings about labor actions, government intervention, and who’s in the right in this case, it was clearly a good thing the governor stepped in: a truck fire on the freeway Monday morning closed two lanes for hours. Traffic backed up across the bridge and for miles up the freeway. If there had been a BART strike, and all those additional drivers were on the road, the traffic jam probably wouldn’t have cleared up until Labor Day.

Batting second: I was a bit off the mark in my prediction that we would start seeing third-party apps supporting Chromecast last week. A quick check of Google Play shows exactly one app touting Chromecast support. That’s “RemoteCast and it’s in beta. As best I can tell, it’s also not an actual media player, it’s a remote control for whatever content you’re already streaming to your Chromecast. So technically I was right, but from a practical standpoint I was a bit optimistic.

Why was I wrong? The interest is definitely there: I’ve seen several apps listing Chromecast support as “coming soon” and several others whose developers are promising support if they can get their hands on a device. However, Google is deliberately slowing things down. They’re describing the current SDK as a “preview”; apps built with it will, they say, only work with Chromecast devices that have been registered with Google for development and testing. Until they release the final SDK, don’t expect a whole lot of apps available for download.

In the third spot: The leftover sauerkraut has been used up. The “Lemon Chicken Baked on a Bed of Sauerkraut” recipe actually called for the entire remainder of our bottle. It turned out reasonably well, but needs some tinkering. The sauerkraut didn’t add much flavor to the chicken, though the chicken added a fair amount to the sauerkraut. That could probably be fixed by layering the chicken between two layers of ‘kraut instead of setting it on top of a single layer. More spice is a must. If we try it again, we’ll probably up the lemon juice a bit, definitely use more rosemary, and crank up the pepper significantly. Probably worth adding some thyme as well. Still, we enjoyed it enough that we would consider trying it again.

We usually use leftover cooking liquid as the basis for soups and stews, but decided against it this time, largely because it seemed like most of its flavor was coming from the dissolved chicken fat. So we put it out for the four-legged neighbors, who apparently enjoyed it immensely, as the bowl was darn near polished. We suspect it went mostly to the raccoons, which is fine: that means more of the cat food went to the cats.

Batting cleanup: It’s been very quiet on the Bay Bridge front lately. The only information I’ve seen is a note from Matier and Ross about the “shim” proposal and the swiftly decreasing likelihood of the bridge opening Labor Day weekend. They point out that because Caltrans is asking both their seismic review panel and the Federal Highway Administration for their opinions of the proposal, the soonest they could get the go-ahead would be mid-August. Caltrans would then need to give a couple of weeks’ notice that the bridge would be closed for four days to switch the lanes from the old bridge to the new. That would be cutting it close. Adding to the pressure against a Labor Day weekend opening is the fact that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission–the master overseer of the bridge project–is on summer vacation until after Labor Day. So all-in-all the prospects for a quick-fix-assisted opening seem dim.

Random thought: does it seem suspicious to you all that the BART fiasco has completely driven the Bolt Botch out of the news? Granted that BART contract negotiations are always messy, but this time around it seems like both sides have gone out of their way to foul things up. Anyone think Caltrans might have been “encouraging” negotiators’ missteps to draw the public’s attention elsewhere while they try to figure out where to pin the donkey’s tail of blame? Not saying they have, but it does have a bit of a “tin foil beanie” feel about it.