California Forum

Caltrans struggles with rust and trust

Finally, Caltrans officials seem to be taking the most basic step toward remedying one of the most troubling flaws on the $6.5 billion Bay Bridge: They’re acknowledging a problem exists.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, the bridge’s lead designer warned Caltrans that the massive cable that holds up the new Bay Bridge is vulnerable to corrosion because water is leaking into its anchorages.

The Chronicle cited recently released minutes of a July meeting in which lead designer Marwan Nader of T.Y. Lin International told a Caltrans committee that the corrosion danger is very real. Water leaking into an area that is supposed to be relatively dry is causing the corrosion.

Caltrans spun a very different tale in April 2014, when The Sacramento Bee first disclosed that the cable and supporting rods were rusting.

A Caltrans spokesperson brushed off The Bee’s finding, saying “there is no concern” about corrosion in the chambers. The spokesperson attributed the rust to “metal shavings/particles generated by grinding and other work” that scraped the steel decks and their protective layer of zinc.

Such cavalier comments followed a pattern in which Caltrans downplayed problems with the tower anchor rods, cracked welds, and skyway tendons. At the worst, Gov. Jerry Brown accused The Bee of journalistic malpractice – a wrong-headed statement that is hardly befitting this governor; he ought to retract it. Details would not have come to light without the press.

Gov. Jerry Brown accused The Bee of journalistic malpractice – a wrong-headed statement that is hardly befitting this governor; he ought to retract it. Details would not have come to light without the press.

The state embarked on a replacement for the eastern span of the Bay Bridge after a section collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake 26 years ago. The bridge, which opened two years ago, cost $6.5 billion; the original estimate was $1.5 billion.

Brian Maroney, the bridge project’s chief engineer, told a Bee editorial board member this week that the state is trying to determine the best way to remedy the situation. But he estimated that the repair will cost millions.

If the cause is determined to be a design or construction flaw, the state could seek penalties from contractors. Otherwise, motorists will pick up the tab out of the $6 tolls they pay each time they cross the bridge heading west. Anyone want to guess who will bear the cost?

Caltrans has made some management changes, and become more transparent. Ultimately, its engineers probably will find solutions to the rusting cable. The corroded public trust will take longer to remedy.

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