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Lawmakers seek probe as doubts are raised on Bay Bridge opening

Published: Monday, May. 20, 2013 - 7:02 pm
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 12, 2014 - 7:26 pm

Elected officials voiced increasing doubts Monday about opening the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as planned on Labor Day weekend, and asked for a formal investigation into state management of the massive construction project.

Their comments followed a Sunday Sacramento Bee investigation into corrosion of steel tendons that support the span's skyway viaduct - the latest problem for the troubled $6.4 billion bridge.

After months of largely dismissing concerns about Bay Bridge structural integrity, Gov. Jerry Brown conceded doubts Monday about meeting the Labor Day schedule. "I'm not going to predict," Brown said of the bridge's opening date. "First, we want to make it safe."

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which holds financial responsibility for Bay Area toll bridges, went further than the governor.

"Given all the questions on bolts and tendons," Campos said in an interview, "I don't think a hard deadline makes sense. The goal would be to open the bridge as soon as possible but no sooner than we can ensure its safety. At this point, I don't think a Labor Day opening is realistic."

Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, a member of the transportation committee and an engineer, said the opening date must be delayed if safety remained in doubt.

Cannella and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, called for a comprehensive investigation of previously reported problems with broken and suspect bolts, and flawed welds on the suspension span, as well as the skyway corrosion issues.

He said that the state attorney general, federal officials, or his own committee should conduct the probe. It should require California Department of Transportation executives to testify under oath and compel them to produce internal documents that show who made decisions that led to the current problems, who dissented in those decisions and why, DeSaulnier said.

"With the level of personal exposure right now (for Caltrans officials) ... there is always the concern that there is documentation that gets lost or destroyed," he said.

"Up until now, the Bay Bridge has been the biggest project in the history of the state," but the planned Delta water tunnels and high-speed rail projects would be far larger, Cannella said. "We had better figure out what went wrong so we don't duplicate it in those other projects."

Experts told The Bee that a major earthquake could disable sections of the skyway due to tendon corrosion. Caltrans and the skyway builder ignored universally accepted methods to prevent corrosion, experts told The Bee. Such problems could cause expensive maintenance headaches that rarely afflict similar modern bridges.

"This issue does not affect the safety, strength or the lifespan of the Skyway," Caltrans said in a written statement Monday. "... Corrosion of steel tendons inside the bridge was extremely limited and was addressed."

But the construction record shows that Caltrans managers did not address frequent warnings from the agency's bridge inspectors until it was too late to head off substantial corrosion. Thomas Devine, a UC Berkeley engineering professor and a leading metallurgist, disagreed with Caltrans claims that its examination of the issue proved that the corrosion was insignificant.

Numerous scientific and methodological errors made the Caltrans findings "meaningless" and "essentially useless," Devine told The Bee.

Like other lawmakers, Cannella expressed frustration about the slow trickle of information coming out of Caltrans. "It's frustrating to me, as a lawmaker, to keep getting my information from The Sacramento Bee," Cannella said.

Campos said he was troubled by numerous cases in which Caltrans deviated from industry standards on the new bridge. Those factors left him wondering, he said, if other problems might still emerge.

"At every turn, they have tried to minimize the severity of the issues ..." Campos said, "undermining their own credibility with respect to the entire project."

Amy Rein Worth, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said her group will thoroughly review all current questions about the new span, including doubts about the foundation of the suspension span tower.

Concerns about the structural integrity of the foundation were described in a series of Bee investigations, and are now under review by a panel of experts coordinated by the Legislative Analyst's Office. That panel might be asked to expand its work to review the bolt and tendon issues.

"My expectation is that the report we get back from Caltrans will be comprehensive and complete," Worth said. "It's the only way we can restore credibility in the bridge and the process."

Lawmakers said that they are mindful of the urgency to open the new bridge, given that the old span currently in service is not earthquake-safe.

But opening the new bridge before resolving quality control questions could increase the cost and difficulty of repairs on a structure used by hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks daily.

"There are no good answers in that kind of scenario," DeSaulnier said.

Call The Bee's Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Charles Piller



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