Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Bee file, 2012

The new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge can be seen on the right. Concerns about bolts, welds and other problems could delay its opening.

Bay Bridge opening postponed indefinitely due to retrofit delays

Published: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 11:19 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 12, 2014 - 7:26 pm

Transportation officials announced on Monday that they would postpone opening the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span indefinitely due to delays in completing the retrofit for broken bolts on the eastern pier of its suspension span.

The new bridge had been scheduled to open on Labor Day weekend.

In a written statement, members of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee - which oversees construction - said that they expect completion by Dec. 10 of the steel "saddle" retrofit, designed to hold down seismic equipment that the broken bolts were meant to secure.

A new opening date will be selected "based upon actual completion of the east pier retrofit work," weather, impact on traffic and other factors, the group noted. The opening might not coincide with a holiday weekend, "and may involve shorter advance notice to the public than prior closures."

The painful decision, made after months of deliberation, is the latest setback for the troubled $6.4 billion span, the subject of numerous construction and testing lapses, and cost overruns.

The move ends any lingering hopes for a long-planned, multimillion-dollar celebration of the span's triumphal opening over the holiday weekend.

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, a civil engineer and a member of the Transportation and Housing Committee, praised the decision.

"We should take as long as needed to make sure that bridge is safe," he said.

In its 130-page report, the oversight group confirmed that hydrogen contamination caused brittleness in the bolts under high tension, causing them to break. It deemed other high-strength steel rods that secure seismic gear on the same pier safe to leave in place until after the new span opens, given that "the risk of near-term hydrogen embrittlement has passed," and "the safety imperative of moving traffic off the seismically deficient existing East Span Bridge."

Thousands of other parts - which, like the broken bolts, were built to a specification ill-suited for a marine environment - were deemed safe because they are not under high tension.

Tension might be reduced for 414 massive rods that affix the new span's tower to its foundation. Dehumidifiers will also be installed or augmented to further reduce corrosion risks in that location and others.

One remaining test, dubbed the "wet test" because it includes soaking bolt samples in a concentrated salt solution to mimic the effects of longer-term corrosion, will be completed before Dec. 10, said Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman Randy Rentschler. The report's conclusions could be revised based on the results.

The oversight group - which comprises MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger, state Department of Transportation Director Malcolm Dougherty and California Transportation Commission Executive Director Andre Boutros - for the first time assigned blame for the bolt problems to Caltrans and several contractors.

They faulted construction practices that allowed water to collect and stand around portions of the bolts that later broke, which "may have exacerbated the embrittlement." The report also blamed "inadequate consideration of alternative corrosion protection treatments, given well-known concerns about the risk of hydrogen embrittlement ... ."

Rentschler said that Caltrans would seek monetary damages from T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol, the joint venture that designed the suspension span; and from American Bridge/Fluor, the joint venture that served as prime building contractor. The amounts that might be recouped have not yet been determined.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said that any performance incentives to contractors should be re-examined to ensure that they are not paid "for something that the public's not getting."

Levine and Cannella expressed concern that the report did not address other problems with the span revealed in Sacramento Bee investigations. Those include corroded tendons in the skyway viaduct that some experts believe could affect its durability in a quake or during normal use.

Nor did the report discuss possibly weak concrete in the tower foundation, currently under review by an expert panel assembled by the state Legislative Analyst's Office, or repairs to 33-foot-long welds at the tower base, essential for seismic stability. The agency has so far refused to supply details on the faulty welds.

Stuart Werner, a seismic engineering expert who has worked on many Caltrans projects, and a recipient of the Lifeline Earthquake Engineering Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in an email that "the problems with the bridge's bolts, tendons, concrete and welds could adversely affect the ability of the bridge to perform in a satisfactory way during a major earthquake."

Rentschler said that these problems are under control.

"In some cases a fix is ongoing - that would be the welds," he said. "In others the issue has been settled - the tendons would in our view be in that category."

Given the additional time prior to the span's opening, Cannella and other elected officials said that all outstanding concerns should be addressed by a new, genuinely independent peer review panel, including critics of the span's construction process.

"We're going to learn from this, people are going to be held accountable and we're going to make sure this doesn't happen again on future projects," such as high-speed rail and the planned Delta tunnels, Cannella said.

David Campos, a San Francisco supervisor and member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said that Caltrans' determination to move traffic off the old bridge as quickly as possible might prove misguided.

"It's not enough to provide a bridge that is safer than the old one. We should provide the public with a bridge that's worth the $6.4 billion investment that they made," he said. "So long as questions remain unanswered, I don't think we will have the level of trust we want."

A big part of the decision to build so costly a bridge, rather than a more utilitarian span, was to create an enduring icon. Missteps and doubts have jeopardized that lofty goal, Campos said.

"There's always the potential for redemption," he said. "But the bridge is not going to become the symbol we want unless we get all of the information on what problems remain and learn exactly the best way to fix it."

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

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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