Elected officials called for an independent review of corrosion inside the new $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
They said their concerns stemmed from a Sacramento Bee investigation published Sunday that identified rust inside a supposedly protected chamber where the new span’s main suspension cable is attached. The corrosion – confirmed by lab testing – affects strands of the cable and rods that secure it to the bridge. The problem apparently was caused in part by water leaking through holes in the bridge deck.
Independent engineering experts who examined corrosion residue and photos warned of potentially serious long-term implications for maintenance and structural stability.
“First and foremost we have to focus on the safety of the bridge. To make sure there is no question about that,” said San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, a member of the Bay Area Toll Authority. “Then we need to make sure that we are assessing whether or not taxpayers got their money’s worth, in terms of the lifespan of the bridge.”
Campos and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, called on the California Department of Transportation to support an independent examination of the corrosion issues.
“We have allowed independent experts, including the (Caltrans) Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel, to examine all credible issues,” said bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon.
An earlier Bee investigation of that panel uncovered professional and financial conflicts of interest.
Campos said he had no criticism of the Caltrans panel, but favored a review by genuine outsiders. “I think of experts who have had nothing to do with the project, who come into it without any preconceived notions,” he said. “It’s a matter of best practice.”
“The Toll Bridge Program has always supported, and participated in, any such requests from the Legislature and will continue to do so, as we did with the Legislative Analyst's Office, who visited the bridge last year and will do so again later this spring,” Gordon said.
“We get it, we’re not in denial here,” said Randy Rentschler, who directs Legislation and Public Affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which works closely with Caltrans on toll bridge matters.“We didn’t expect to have this kind of water seepage into the system. It’s being remediated.”
The commission operates the Toll Authority, comprising local elected officials who oversee bridge-toll spending. They are waiting for Caltrans to deliver a list of ongoing construction and maintenance issues for the new span, promised in February. Rentschler said Caltrans might provide the list in May.
The list should include the corrosion issues reported by The Bee, Campos said, and if Caltrans fails to deliver it by next month, the Toll Authority should reconsider how to move forward.
Rentschler had no immediate comment about the cable strand corrosion, but ongoing tests by Caltrans will assess the vulnerability of the new span’s anchor rods, including the ones that secure the main cable. “We’re on it,” he said. “We ... are consulting with metallurgical experts of all types until we get this right.”
Despite concerns about the new span’s water leaks, weld defects, suspect rods, corroded cable strands and other matters, Rentschler said bridge officials feel confident that the new bridge was “overbuilt” to ensure public safety.
Campos said that once Caltrans delivers its list, an independent third party should examine the issues and ensure that nothing significant has been overlooked.
Caltrans officials often have said that some problems are inevitable on so large a cutting-edge project, and that no bridge is perfect.
“That’s not imperfection,” DeSaulnier said, regarding the litany of Bay Bridge construction concerns. “That’s incompetence.”
DeSaulnier’s committee has been conducting an investigation of construction and testing on the new span. He said an independent review of the corrosion on the cable strands and rods should be a step toward more comprehensive oversight.
“We should have an independent inspector general or something like that for Caltrans, and something like that for all megaprojects,” DeSaulnier said. “The incestuous nature of relationships between transportation contractors and Caltrans provides too many conflicts of interest.”
The new span is so crucial to the Bay Area and the state, said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, that “we have to hold the project – as well as the people who were involved in it – accountable to very high standards.”
Call The Bee’s Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.