Temporary fix approved to open troubled Bay Bridge span after Labor Day weekend

08/16/2013 12:00 AM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

State transportation officials said Thursday they will open the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after the Labor Day weekend as originally planned, despite a broken-bolt problem that threatened to delay the troubled project's opening.

The announcement follows the Federal Highway Administration's endorsement of a temporary retrofit that can be done before completion of permanent work to replace the broken bolts.

The temporary fix involves "shimming" seismic bearings with steel plates.

Transportation officials said the new eastern span is better able to withstand an earthquake than the existing bridge, and members of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, which oversees construction, characterized their decision to go forward as motivated by a concern for public safety.

The Federal Highway Administration said in a letter last week to Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and chairman of the oversight group, that its review team "was impressed with the level of expertise used to fashion this interim" solution.

The FHA said shimming the bearings would improve the bridge's ability to withstand seismic forces.

Vincent Mammano, an FHA administrator, told members of the oversight committee at a meeting in Oakland on Thursday that "we see no reason to delay opening the bridge to traffic" before a permanent retrofit is finished.

The committee, which includes the directors of the state Transportation Department, the California Transportation Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, unanimously approved work on the temporary retrofit.

Later Thursday, Rick Land, chief deputy director of Caltrans, said "the new bridge is much safer for the public."

The bridge is scheduled to open to traffic the morning after Labor Day, following a five-day closure. Transportation officials said they expect to complete a permanent retrofit by December.

The $6.4 billion bridge project has been mired in controversy about cost overruns and construction and testing lapses, and an ongoing investigation by The Sacramento Bee has raised questions about the bridge's structural integrity.

Abolhassan Astaneh, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the reassurances committee members received Thursday did not adequately address other concerns about the bridge's construction, including corroded tendons in a skyway viaduct and the brittleness of bolts.

"The issues of this bridge are many," he said. "This bridge is completely out of control as far as satisfying the rules and guidelines and specs ... . If an earthquake hits this bridge, there is a very, very high likelihood that the bridge is going to collapse."

The FHA's opinion, however, appears to have carried weight.

When a temporary solution to the broken-bolt problem was first proposed last month, days after the committee announced an indefinite delay, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, called the abruptness of the proposal's consideration "disconcerting to say the least."

"It's a symptom of the management of this project – and it's not a good symptom," DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said at the time.

Following the transportation officials' decision to go ahead with the temporary fix, however, DeSaulnier said in a prepared statement that the existing bridge is not seismically safe and, "I support moving commuters off the old span, and onto the new one as soon as it is safe to do so."

DeSaulnier said, "The recent review by the Federal Highway Administration ... confirms that sooner is better than later for the safety of commuters who rely upon the Bay Bridge every day."

State transportation officials said shims already have been fabricated and could be installed within a matter of days. In addition to the FHA, bridge engineers from two outside companies reviewed the shimming proposal and endorsed it, officials said.

The bridge is expected to be closed for as many as five days, beginning the evening of Aug. 28 and reopening by 5 a.m. Sept. 3.

Despite a return to the original, post-Labor Day weekend opening, plans for a major celebration will be put off.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown said he was looking forward to a major ceremony with biking and running events on the new span.

Transportation officials said Thursday they lack time to prepare for such a celebration, but that Brown might participate in a smaller, ribbon cutting-like ceremony involving the cutting of a chain.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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