Independent review urged for Bay Bridge fixes

05/07/2013 5:27 PM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

State and local transit authorities are calling for an independent review of proposals to repair the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, whose planned opening date has been jeopardized by recent construction setbacks.

The state Transportation Department is scrambling to respond to safety concerns after weeks of revelations about 32 broken bolts used to secure vital seismic equipment on the eastern pier of the suspension span. Samples for the bolts had failed quality tests. Last week, The Bee reported the agency is also faced with defects in welds also vital to seismic safety.

"I'm convinced that there has to be some kind of third-party review - with as much arm length from Caltrans as possible," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who chairs the Transportation and Housing Committee. "Part of the problem with (peer review experts sponsored by) Caltrans is that they just reinforce what the internal decisions are."

Caltrans officials go before DeSaulnier's committee May 14. Today they will report to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to update members on repairs to the $6.4 billion span and the schedule.

Amy Rein Worth, commission chair and mayor of Orinda, said that she expects Caltrans to deliver a retrofit design selection for the broken bolts, but a final decision on the timing of the bridge opening might still be postponed. Commissioners also will hear a Caltrans update about whether 256 similar bolts that secure separate seismic gear must be replaced.

Worth also called for an independent review of Caltrans' bolt conclusions, to "instill public confidence in the safety of the bridge." Which experts conduct that review - a Caltrans-sponsored panel or a more independent group - remains to be seen, she said.

DeSaulnier said, in the long run, a genuinely independent third-party review offers "the potential for meaningful change" within the agency's quality-control culture.

He has introduced legislation to increase the independence and openness of expert reviews of transportation megaprojects.

"The immediate thing for me is to make sure the bridge is safe and it gets fixed," DeSaulnier said.

MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said that a request has been made to the Federal Highway Administration for a review of all decisions concerning bolts that have not yet broken. Those include more than 2,000 beyond the east pier bolts, installed throughout the new Bay Bridge despite Caltrans and industry rules that designated them as inappropriate for such uses due to galvanization, and extreme hardness and strength. Those qualities can make steel vulnerable to contamination with hydrogen - rendering it brittle and subject to breakage under stress.

Rentschler said the federal agency has not yet replied to the request, and he had no timeline for the review.

As for the welds, Worth said she hoped that Caltrans also would provide those details at today's meeting. The Bee reported flaws in the welds, each 33 feet long, in the base of the iconic tower of the new Bay Bridge.

Contrary to the views of independent bridge experts, Caltrans said the weld defects, called "cracks" by one expert, do not affect safety or structural stability. The agency has not yet responded to questions about the details of the flaws or its repair plan.

DeSaulnier said his committee expects an update on the bolt and weld issues at next week's hearing, and also would address a recent report by the state auditor that sharply criticized Caltrans for lapses in a unit that tests concrete in the foundations of bridges, overpasses and other freeway structures.

The audit validated the findings of a Bee investigation and a subsequent Caltrans report that cited testing falsifications and the loss of thousands of test files.

While no falsifications on tests of the Bay Bridge tower foundation were found, other testing and construction lapses reported by The Bee have prompted questions about the ability of the tower to withstand a worst-case earthquake. An expert panel formed by the Legislative Analyst's Office after a request from DeSaulnier's committee will address those questions in a report due in June.

Gov. Jerry Brown, apparently unfazed by the bolt problems, said Tuesday that it would be "premature to pull our hair out" over the bridge setbacks.

"Look, s--- happens," he said, after expressing confidence that "there are very professional engineers that are looking at this thing, and when they're ready to give us their report, I think the public will be satisfied."

Since last summer Brown has maintained unwavering support for the state's construction and oversight of the new bridge, dismissing questions about its structural integrity.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, MTC's vice chair, said that Caltrans has been providing accurate information, but the incremental release of details about the bolt issue has raised concerns.

"As the saying goes, 'trust but verify.' That's what we are trying to do," he said.

He noted that the commission serves both as fiscal agent and watchdog for the project. "We have to make sure no one is pulling the wool over our eyes or omitting information," he said. "It's a grave situation. We all appreciate other institutions, including the media, poking at this thing because we've got to get this right."

Call The Bee's Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller. Staff writer David Siders contributed to this report.

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