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.

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.

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.