Bay Bridge

California legislators question incentive payments to speed Bay Bridge opening

Bay Area members of the California Assembly and Senate formally requested that officials responsible for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge disclose any incentives promised to the span's builders if it opens as proposed on Labor Day weekend.

Public confidence in the project could be harmed, they said in a letter, by any appearance of a rush to meet the deadline by contractors seeking financial rewards.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said in an interview that the request by 14 legislators to Steve Heminger, chair of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, was meant to help ensure "that commuters know that safety is the paramount concern that is driving the opening of the new span."

The legislators – including most of those who represent immediate Bay Area districts – wrote that they need "information about which companies benefit from incentives, a timeline of dates, amounts, and work completed that are tied to these incentives, as well as the reasons for the incentives and when the incentives were offered."

The oversight committee, which directs the bridge project, comprises the heads of the California Department of Transportation, the California Transportation Commission and Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

In September 2010, that group approved a $293 million budget increase to fund an incentive for the prime contractor of the suspension span portion of the new bridge, a joint venture of American Bridge Co. and Fluor Corp. – to be paid if the bridge opens this year. Some of the increase was earmarked to "replenish contract contingency," according to a committee report. Other reports refer to similar performance incentives, but do not specify amounts.

The opening date remains in doubt due to a series of problems involving broken and suspect bolts on the suspension span. A decision on the possible Labor Day opening must be made by July 10 to allow sufficient preparation, Heminger said at a recent meeting. He and other officials have stated that safety will be the top priority in the decision.

Some state senators and elected officials who serve on the Bay Area Toll Authority – which holds the purse strings for the project – have requested more information or called for independent reviews of other Bay Bridge problems uncovered in Bee investigations:

At the base of the suspension span tower, giant welds vital for seismic safety contain hundreds of actual or possible flaws. The California Department of Transportation has refused so far to provide details on repairs that have been in progress for more than nine months.

Lapses in testing and construction of the reinforced concrete foundation for that tower prompted experts to question its reliability in a large earthquake. The California Legislative Analyst's Office has formed an expert panel to study the concerns.

Thousands of steel tendons inside the skyway viaduct of the new span corroded after construction and management mistakes. The tendons, vital for structural integrity in a seismic event or during normal use, could corrode further due to substandard construction methods, experts said. Caltrans studied the problem and deemed it minor. But a leading UC Berkeley metallurgist called that study "essentially useless" due to methodological errors.

At a recent briefing for legislators, Caltrans "officials said that the new span is safer than the old span by a country mile," Levine said. "I reminded them that the new span is longer than a country mile."

He said that all safety concerns – broken and suspect bolts, faulty welds, corroded tendons and questionable foundation concrete – "need to be considered and reviewed prior to the determination of the opening date for the bridge."

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