Peer review panel wants new Bay Bridge open ASAP

July 10, 2013 8:38:43 PM PDT
A key watchdog of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge says the bridge should be reopened as soon as possible, in spite of all the broken steel bolts that need to be repaired. This caught bridge officials by surprise.

At least some of the bridge officials were surprised. The new timeline for the east span to open was sometime after early December, but on Wednesday the head of the peer review panel said even a temporary fix for the broken bolts would be much better than leaving traffic on the old bridge.

"There's no question what we should do, namely put the traffic as quickly as possible onto the new bridge," said Dr. Freider Seible, the peer review chair.

The head of the peer review panel overseeing the new Bay Bridge project says the decision to push back the opening, until 32 broken bolts are retrofitted is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

"I don't want to wait any day longer than necessary because we can have an earthquake at any time and the old bridge is not safe," said Seible.

The suggestion from Seible of a temporary fix for the bolts that would allow the new east span to open sooner came during a briefing before the Bay Area Toll Authority. The idea was a bit of a surprise to Caltrans and MTC officials who earlier this week said the opening of the new span had to be pushed back to at least December.

"Yes I was surprised because I was unaware of its existence," said Steve Heminger from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Seible says the temporary solution represented by green shims in a model he showed us could be put in place in a month's time. That would allow for the bridge to open to traffic, while the permanent fix the saddle system is being installed.

"So why not do it? It seems illogical not to consider it," said John Fisher, from the peer review panel.

"We should absolutely consider it as an opportunity to open up the bridge at its earliest possible time, to ensure the safety of the motoring public," said Malcolm Dougherty, the Caltrans director.

Caltrans now says the saddle retrofit will cost at least $20 million. That doesn't include the cost of replacing hundreds of other suspect bolts. The department is looking to recoup some of that cost from the primary contractor and designer of the bridge.

MTC: Caltrans should have tested Bay Bridge bolts

The report is out on the broken steel bolts in the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge and we are learning more about why the bolts broke and who's to blame. The Bay Area Toll Authority heard from a bridge oversight committee about plans for a steel saddle that will perform the same function as the failed bolts.

At the meeting, the executive director of the MTC said there's plenty of blame to pass around between the owner, which is Caltrans, as well as the designer and the contractor. He pointed out a few things early on. He said the wrong bolts were picked for this highly specialized, unique bridge, or at least for certain points on this bridge. He also noted that it was not a one size fits all kind of scenario.

He also points out problems with the design itself, namely that the rods are embedded in concrete, which makes it expensive to fix them when they're broken. The price tag so far is $10 million. On top of all that, he adds that the steel itself was not strong enough.

"The 2008 rods that broke had higher than normal susceptibility to hydrogen embrittlement, meaning the steel was not up to snuff," MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said. "But, and here's the paradox, that steel complied with the specifications that were selected by the designer and owner of the project. If you've got poor steel that meets your spec, there's something wrong with your spec."

He also says Caltrans should have tested the bolts before they were installed. What that means right now is that the 32 bolts that did break cannot be replaced because they are embedded. That's why the fix is so expensive and that's why the opening date has been delayed.

For their part, Dougherty says the department has learned some lessons in all of this.

The bridge was scheduled to open on Labor Day. But according to a report released this week, the estimated retrofit of the failed bolts will take until at least Dec. 10.


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