Decision on Bay Bridge delayed; governor orders review of Caltrans

05/30/2013 12:00 AM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

Transportation officials faced tough questions Wednesday about broken bolts, corroded tendons and bad welds on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and announced that any decision to open the span on Labor Day weekend will not come until July.

They told Bay Area Toll Authority commissioners at an Oakland meeting that testing and construction required them to set July 10 as the new deadline.

"We're going to need a little more time," said Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director Steve Heminger at the Oakland meeting. "We're not quite there yet. We absolutely want to do this right, and not be rushed."

Also on Wednesday, the Brown administration said it had ordered an independent, system-wide review of the California Department of Transportation, which is at the center of controversy surrounding construction of the new bridge.

Brian Kelly, acting secretary of the Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, said in a prepared statement that experts from the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a group housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will "take a fresh look at Caltrans operations and help improve performance, communications and management."

Gareth Lacy, an agency spokesman, said the agency had been contemplating the outside review for months. The study is expected to cost $270,000.

Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters after an event in Sacramento on Wednesday that the review has nothing to do with the Bay Bridge but is meant to take "a fresh look at Caltrans as part of our government reorganization."

At the toll authority meeting, officials said a completion date for a steel "saddle" to replace the function of broken bolts on the east pier of the suspension span remains uncertain. Those bolts broke in March.

Tests to determine how Caltrans will handle thousands of other suspect bolts will be completed in late June. If needed, some might be replaced before the span opens.

But several commissioners – who jointly serve on the related Metropolitan Transportation Commission and control the purse strings of Bay Area toll bridges – said that bolt testing alone would be insufficient to reassure them about the wisdom of a September opening.

They voiced skepticism about Caltrans' responses to reports in The Bee about corroded tendons, suspect concrete and faulty welds in other portions of the new $6.4 billion bridge. They noted with concern that yet another problem – the breakage of numerous bolts that secure bike-path railings – was reported in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Commissioners said the stream of quality issues, reported first in the media, has contributed to flagging public confidence in Caltrans' ability to deliver a safe and reliable bridge.

Heminger said that all the problems were under control, but conceded that public confidence "is a great part of our challenge right now."

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan challenged Caltrans officials to explain their dismissal of expert concerns, reported in The Bee, about flaws in 20 large welds, essential for seismic safety, at the base of the new span's iconic tower.

Brian Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, replied that hundreds of potential defects had been detected in the welds. Some have been repaired and others are being evaluated. He did not indicate how long that process would take, although it has been under way for more than nine months.

Quan also asked Caltrans to respond to concerns about corroded tendons in the new span's skyway viaduct, described in a recent Bee investigation. Experts said that a large earthquake might disable skyway sections. The agency violated modern construction methods meant to prevent corrosion, experts told The Bee, and the lapses could require costly maintenance.

Quan cited comments in The Bee by Thomas Devine, a University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor and a leading metallurgist, who disagreed with the basis for Caltrans' claims that its examination proved that problems were minor.

"I specifically want a response to (Devine's) feeling that you used the wrong tests, the wrong standards, and that it's not safe," she said.

Maroney replied that the discovery of the problem in 2006 was initially disturbing.

"Holy smokes, this was probably the moment I was most frustrated on this job," he said.

But Maroney was later relieved after his experts studied the issue, "sharpened their pencil" and concluded there was no cause for concern – a judgment disputed by Devine and other independent experts.

Commissioner and San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said that Devine's criticisms of Caltrans testing as "useless" suggest broader concerns of credibility.

"(A)t the core of everything that's happening in this investigation is testing that Caltrans is doing. For all of these solutions to work and to make sense, we have to trust the testing," Campos said. "So when you have a newspaper that cites experts questioning the way in which you conducted that testing, that raises a very important issue."

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty responded that his experts would debate the critique of how the skyway tendons were handled, and share the concerns with the consultants who reviewed Caltrans work.

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

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