A Few Screws Loose on Achy-Breaky Bay Bridge


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown recently stepped in it when a reporter asked him about the Bay Bridge. In March, 32 of 96 key rods in the under-construction eastern span cracked after they were tightened. Dao Guv — who, as Oakland’s mayor, helped delay construction of the new span to win a tony, world-class design — gave the wrong answer: “(Scatological stuff) happens.”

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The state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee held a hearing Tuesday to find out how such stuff happens. State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, wants to know. As a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 1998, DeSaulnier voted for a “self-anchored suspension” bridge design. It was supposed to be “aspirational.” The price tag was supposed to be $1.1 billion.

Now it’s $6.4 billion, cracked rods and all. Worse, DeSaulnier told reporters before the hearing, “I haven’t heard one thing close to an apology.”

To the contrary, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty told the committee that the state did not set limits on the hardness of steel for the rods, and it turns out that could be the reason builders installed what Dougherty referred to as a bad “batch” of bolts. “It was,” he asserted, “a decision that was made eyes wide-open.”

No rods have broken since the original 32 cracked and the rest of that batch was de-tensioned. If there were only one bad batch, that would be good news because it would mean the other rods — more than 2,000 of them — are not defective.

What next? Engineers seem to favor constructing “steel saddles” around the bad rods — at a cost (for now, anyway) of $5 million to $10 million. Also, builders are using dehumidifiers to prevent embrittlement from hydrogen, an element of water. On the San Francisco Bay, it seems, there is water, water everywhere.

Engineers have loosened other rods — which makes you wonder why they were so tight to begin with. Is there a problem with looser rods? Who knows? As Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner (and San Francisco Supervisor) David Campos observed, “they keep saying there are standards, but you can deviate from the standards.”

So now Californians are supposed to trust the guys who ignored federal standards established to avoid “brittle failure” and failed to issue maximum hardness standards for rods. And Californians are supposed to accept that state officials installed a bad batch of rods in 2008 only to find out that rods weren’t up to the job in 2013, when it was too late to replace them. But they’ll fix it this time, right? They’re the experts.

With no hard questions answered, no definitive explanation of what went wrong and no apologies extended, DeSaulnier ended the hearing wondering whether the Bay Area Toll Authority still plans on holding its $5.6 million Labor Day weekend opening party for the bridge. After all, what self-respecting politician would have the brass to show up and take credit for a dubious bridge built sixfold over budget?

The MTC’s Steve Heminger answered, “I think we need to retrofit the east pier and may need to retrofit the celebration, too.” Sage advice.

One other thing: If the experts decide it’s safe to open the new span, perhaps they should rename it Titanic.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].

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