Bay Bridge

Amid bolt problems, new Bay Bridge span's opening date still unclear

Transportation officials said Wednesday that they need until at least May 29 to decide on possibly delaying the planned September opening of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, as they address problems with broken and suspect bolts.

California Transportation Commission Executive Director Andre Boutros told an Oakland meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that a steel "saddle" had been selected to replace the function of broken bolts made in 2008 and used to secure seismic "shear keys" on the east pier of the suspension span.

The saddle was deemed cheaper, easier to manufacture and less likely to damage the pier than an alternate "collar" design. The fix will involve installation of steel tendons that will be placed under tension and covered with concrete. Boutros estimated costs at $5 million to $10 million. But officials could not commit to the retrofit's completion in time for the planned Labor Day opening.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan pressed for a firm decision at a special May 29 commission meeting. The bolt problems have disrupted celebration plans for the opening, and fundraising for the event has been halted.

"We are working as quickly as we can," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But he said officials need to ensure that the job is completed correctly, so no promises can be made about the timing for a decision.

Boutros, Heminger and California Department of Transportation Director Malcolm Dougherty make up the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, responsible for seismic retrofits on Bay Area toll bridges.

Officials have been scrambling for weeks to address solutions for 32 broken bolts that were installed despite their prohibition for such purposes by Caltrans' own rules, and despite having failed quality tests. The combination of galvanization and extreme hardness and strength, made them vulnerable to hydrogen contamination that caused brittleness under stress.

A decision about whether or when to replace hundreds of similar bolts - produced in 2010 and designed to secure other seismic devices at the east pier - will be made after additional tests.

Heminger said that many of those parts are under high tension and attach shear keys and seismic bearings to the overhead girder assembly. Others are internal to giant seismic bearings, where they cannot be physically examined without disassembling the devices.

More than 1,000 similar parts elsewhere on the suspension span are at somewhat lesser risk of breaking because they are under less tension. Caltrans is also monitoring those, and others that were installed years earlier on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

So far, Heminger said, no bolt made in 2010 has broken. Preliminary tests show them to be less hard, yet tougher and more flexible than the problematic 2008 batch. Other tests will take at least several more weeks - including a "wet test," in which bolts are placed under stress in a saltwater solution to simulate an accelerated corrosion environment that might predict long-term performance.

Heminger said that he hopes a conclusion on whether any of the 2010 bolts must be replaced prior to the span's opening also will be made by May 29.

The Bee reported last week that 20 welds essential to seismic safety, each 33 feet long and in the base of the bridge tower, were flawed and required repair to withstand a massive quake. At the time, Caltrans said that the welds had no effect on safety or structural stability.

But at Wednesday's meeting, the agency's chief Bay Bridge engineer, Brian Maroney, conceded that the welds are important for seismic safety. Weld defects are not unusual, he said, noting that these repairs have been in progress for nine months.

The agency has so far failed to respond to requests from The Bee for details about the flaws and when repairs will be completed.

Amid concerns from public officials for independent oversight, Heminger said decisions about the bolts will undergo nonbinding reviews by Caltrans peer review experts and the Federal Highway Administration.

While the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee has the authority to set the span's opening date, Heminger said the final decision will rest with Gov. Jerry Brown.

On Tuesday, Brown voiced confidence that while some lapses seem inevitable in so large a project, engineers will overcome the problems.

"Look, s--- happens," the governor said, predicting that the public will be satisfied with Caltrans' final reports.

With reference to that comment and the agency's use of bolts which failed basic tests and guidelines, commissioner David Campos said, "I follow the smell test.

"When 'stuff happens,' it is really important for us to be very transparent and forthcoming," said the San Francisco supervisor. "We have actually gotten more information from the press in terms of some of the things that have happened than from this (commission) process."

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

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