New Year, Same Old Stories

As we kick 2013 under a steamroller and leap into 2014, it seems like a good idea to check on the biggest stories of the year gone by.

  • The Bay Bridge is still standing. That’s a good start. The famous “saddle” retrofit is complete, and the seismic stabilizers are actually attached to the bridge structure now. Of course, the retrofit went over budget, but did anyone actually expect anything different? The original estimate was $10 million, so the final cost of $25 million is only over by 150%. That’s a damn sight better than the cost overrun for the bridge itself.Our buddy Jaxon notes that Caltrans is still testing rods and bolts. They’ve identified an additional 700 fasteners that might need replacement. Such fun. The bridge is a project that just keeps on giving.

    No updates yet on any of the basic questions we started our study of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch with. Is it too late to make the whole East Span a single “Who QAed This Shit?” item?

  • Meanwhile, over in the wonderful world of BART, we’ve had a few things happen since we last checked in. As you may recall, the unions ratified the contract, but BART management did not, thanks to a family leave clause that BART said they never meant to include.Words were exchanged, lawsuits were filed, and behind the scenes, negotiations went on. In exchange for deleting the familiy leave clause, BART offered a package of tweaks to the contract, including expanded bereavement leave, new break rooms in some stations, and a modification to the way bonuses for meeting ridership targets are calculated.

    BART directors are supposed to vote on the final, final contract today. Based on the rhetoric flying around, it’s unlikely to be approved unanimously, but I’m guessing there’s a 75% chance it will be approved.

    Meanwhile, BART has been pushing for legislation to make strikes illegal and require mandatory arbitration. Unions have greeted that idea with great enthusiasm. Rumors that union members’ cars are now sporting “You’ll have to pry my right to strike from my cold, dead hands” are entirely false (and were, in fact, invented by this author just now). In reality, the unions are greeting the notion of mandatory arbitration with all the excitement they would give to mandatory dentist visits or a return of the Macarena. A Bay Area “advisory” ballot measure seems likely to pass by a landslide, but getting a bill through the state government seems highly unlikely.

    My take is that if both sides really want to avoid another strike four years from now, they need to start negotiating now. Don’t wait for 2017, just get the teams talking first thing Monday morning. Don’t reference the just-signed contract, forget traditional perks, rules, and barriers, and start with a blank sheet of paper to build a contract acceptable to both sides. They’ve got three and a half years; that’s almost long enough. Go to it!

  • Finally, there was a small story buried on page 4 of the Chronicle’s sports section on 22 December. Its headline is “Pill to Korea”, and my first thought was that somebody was proposing chemical therapy for Kim Jong Un. Apparently not, and the Giants don’t need to worry about the AMA investigating them for practicing medicine without a license. Turns out they’ve sold first baseman Brett Pill to a Korean baseball team. Interesting choice of words there. If we can believe the story, they haven’t sold his contract to the Kia Tigers, they’ve sold him. The AMA may be the least of the Giants’ problems.For Mr. Pill’s sake, we’ll hope that the Kia Tigers are a baseball team with a need for a first baseman, and not actually a section of the Gwangju Zoo with a need for raw meat. Maybe we can interest the zoo in a package deal for Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman.

Bay Bridge Review

I drove across the new Bay Bridge yesterday. In both directions, even.

I survived (well, duh: how would I be writing this if I hadn’t?). So did the bridge. Amazing.

It’s not without its quirks. That’s probably a good thing in the long run. Quirks add uniqueness, and now that the Bay Area has proven that a self-anchored suspension span can be built in this size, others will undoubtedly be built. If the Bay Bridge is going to remain unique long enough to justify the price tag, it’s going to need some quirks. “We just built an SAS bridge 50% longer than yours!” “Oh yeah? Well, does it have re-purposed disco lights for traffic metering?” Other quirks: the traffic chaos at the toll plaza continues to make safely navigating through the Maze look easy. The 50 mph speed limit feels like it’s much slower than it should be, given the long, straight roadbed.

Quirks aside, the bridge largely meets the aesthetic goals that were set by the assorted politicians who meddled in the design. It certainly draws the eye, and once the old span is dismantled (a three-year process!), it will dominate the landscape from most viewpoints. It fails a little when driving east: coming out of the Yerba Buena Island tunnel, you don’t really get quite the same visual impact from the suspension cables as you do approaching them from the other direction. They’re just suddenly there, rather than growing to surround you.

The lighting system is a huge design victory. The light poles are visually distinctive, and feature low-energy LED bulbs that are carefully-aimed to avoid ever shining into drivers’ eyes. According to plan, the bulbs should only need replacing every 10 to 15 years, which is great in terms of cost and power usage. I wonder, though, how easy it will be to replace them without ruining the precise orientation that keeps the light even and motorists un-blinded. That’s a quibble, and I’m sure we’ll find out how it works out long before 2023, as some of the bulbs will inevitably not reach the 10 year design goal.

That speed limit is going to be a continuing issue. Not at rush hour, perhaps, but at other times, drivers are going to regularly exceed it by a significant margin. I saw quite a few cars doing an estimated 65 or 70 yesterday, and I’d be willing to bet that will be “business as usual”. Maybe that’s a design feature. Since the new span has a shoulder, it should be possible for the CHP to pull speeders over and issue tickets. Could be a nice little supplement for somebody’s budget — as soon as the various powers-that-be settle the question of how the funds will be allocated. Or maybe they’ll install speed bumps and turn the bridge into the world’s longest roller coaster ride.

Bottom line: Until its seismic safety is demonstrated by something more than the 2.9 magnitude quakes it’s weathered so far, the public will continue to be dubious about the bolts, the saddle, and the shim. But the new span is beautiful and much more pleasant to drive across than the old one. Here’s hoping the engineers are right and that the new bridge lasts — and not just because it’s got a huge price tag to justify!

BART and Bolts

A couple of unrelated Bay Area transportation-related updates today.

First, a quick update on BART for those who are interested: the strike lasted essentially all of last week. Service resumed at 3pm Friday, too late in the day to do much for the afternoon commute. There is no settlement. The union members have returned to work while negotiations continue. State mediators pushed both sides to agree to extend the current contract for 30 days. Both sides continue to claim that an agreement isn’t close and that the other is negotiating in bad faith. Neither side is doing much to boost their image with the general public.

My prediction: There will not be a new agreement by the time the extension expires. Workers will strike again on 31 July, and an agreement will be reached over the following weekend.

In Bay Bridge Bolt Botch news, it appears that Labor Day is off the table for opening the new bridge. So are Columbus Day and Halloween. Ditto Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

Caltrans gave a closed-door briefing to state legislators yesterday, and an official announcement is planned for tomorrow. The word coming out of yesterday’s briefing is that constructing and installing the “saddle” to anchor the seismic stabilizers will take until December 10. We’ve discussed the saddle in the past. It’s intended to serve the same function as the snapped bolts, and will add only $10,000,000 to the cost of the bridge. A true bargain for the sense of security it will provide! I’m sure we’ll all feel much happier about driving over the bridge with the saddle in place.

Oh, and the other 2,000+ bolts? Caltrans is still testing them. On Sunday, our friend Jaxon quotes a corrosion expert as saying that the sort of simulated aging tests being done are “a roll-of-the-dice kind of thing” in terms of their ability to give an accurate picture of the long-term condition of the materials. He also quotes a UC Berkeley materials science professor as saying that the tests are unlikely to provide any new information. He says “You know what it is going to prove? That high-strength steel is susceptible to hydrogen-assisted cracking.” I find it interesting that the testing is intended to simulate aging over a ten year period. The new bridge is supposed to have a 150 year useful lifespan.

Jaxon was apparently unavailable to write today’s article on the report to the legislature. That was done by Michael Cabanatuan in Tuesday’s paper. In regard to the bolts that haven’t cracked, Michael quotes the report as saying that based on inspections done to date, the installation of the saddle will be sufficient to allow the bridge to open. 740 bolts will need to be replaced, but that can be done “after the span opens”. How reassuring. Why not replace them now? After all, it’s going to take three months to get the saddle installed. Is there a reason not make use of that time?

The report, by the way, also addresses the question of responsibility. Says Michael, “Caltrans, bridge designers T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol Design Joint Ventrue and bridge builder American Bridge/Fluor Joint Venture share responsibility for the rod failures, the report concludes.” I’ve got news for you, Michael: one cannot hold a corporation or public agency as a whole responsible for anything. Responsibility vests in individuals.

I’ve been saying for weeks now that some specific people should have signed off on the design, the choice of materials, and the manufacture and installation of the parts. Either those signoffs were never given, or they’ve all been mislaid. Regardless of which scenario is more likely or which actually occurred, it’s the people who signed off or should have signed off but didn’t who should be identified as “responsible”.

Maybe we’ll get more information when the report is formally released tomorrow, though I doubt it. As Wikipedia tells us, collective responsibility “often breeds distrust and isolation…and is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in the institution or its home society.” This is a situation where Caltrans, the contractors, and the legislature need to build trust, and blaming anonymous members of largely faceless corporate entities will not do that.

What if they built a bridge and nobody drove over it? If BART has settled its strike by December, we may very well see a huge spike in BART ridership at the expense of automobile and AC Transit’s Transbay bus service.

BART Strike

Since y’all are asking about it in email, here are a few words on the current transportation woes in the Bay Area: “GET BACK TO WORK!”

And that’s not just aimed at the striking workers. It’s also aimed at BART officials.

Strikers, you’ve made your point. Transit is a mess without you. We get it. (We knew it already–we remember the last time you went on strike, when BART wasn’t as critical as it is now–but thanks for making it crystal clear.) So now that you’ve reminded us that we can’t get by without you, please get back to work while negotiations continue. Thanks in advance.

BART officials: How about making a serious offer? 2% a year after four years of frozen wages is barely an offer; combined with the increases to pension and health care costs, it’s bordering on an insult.

Speaking of those negotiations, union negotiators: what the hell were you thinking, leaving the negotiations at 8:30 Sunday? Dumping an offer that you knew was going to be unacceptable to BART on the table and then walking out doesn’t just border on an insult, it is outright insulting. Not to BART management, but to the general public who relies on BART to get to work. That says “We don’t give a shit about you, but we expect you to back us.”

All of you: Whether we like it or not, BART is an essential resource. Today there is literally no way to get from home to work for anyone who does not work in San Francisco. If you need to commute between Richmond/El Cerrito/Berkeley and Walnut Creek/Concord/Pittsburg or Dublin/Pleasanton/Hayward/Fremont, you’re on your own. No bus connections, no casual carpool, no Caltrain or Amtrak. I’m not suggesting that BART employees (or transit employees in general) should be legally prevented from striking, just that they should seriously consider limiting their strikes to short, specified strikes as other essential workers do (one or two day strikes get the point across without burning all of your goodwill).

Remember folks: there’s plenty of blame to go around to all sides on this one. Settle quickly, or don’t be surprised if the public at large spits on you all.

One final thought for the commuters: Congratulations on making today not nearly as bad as most of the predictions. Here’s hoping you can keep it up. If AC Transit goes on strike tomorrow and everyone who burned their weekly telecommute day today is trying to get to the office, it’s going to make those predictions look optimistic.