Bay Area transportation officials are planning a big celebration on Labor Day weekend for the opening of new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. There will be fireworks, and people will be able to bike, run, and walk across the bridge before it’s open to traffic. The signature, single-tower span has been nearly 24 years in the making, and will replace the old cantilever section of the bridge, a portion of which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. But as unsafe as the old bridge is, the new bridge’s safety is now in doubt as well, following investigative reports that raise troubling questions about whether it can withstand a major quake. As such, Caltrans should delay the opening of the new bridge for as long as necessary to make sure it’s safe.
Caltrans and Metropolitan Transportation Commission officials have said that they are waiting to make a final decision on the bridge opening until engineers have tested 192 giant steel bolts that could break because they may be too hard and brittle. The quality of these bolts was thrown into doubt after 32 others already installed on the bridge snapped, even though they had been tightened to just 70 percent of their supposed capacity.
The big bolts are integral to helping the new bridge withstand a major temblor. But a series of investigative reports by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, and the Sacramento Bee, which relied on Caltrans documents and interviews with experts from around the nation, have uncovered evidence that the bolts may be defective.
Caltrans officials have sought to downplay the investigative reports. But to date, they have yet to actually answer most of the questions raised in them. And last weekend, Chronicle investigative reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken produced perhaps the most troubling report so far. He discovered that Caltrans had circumvented its own safety rules when establishing specifications for the big bolts and had skirted federal standards that ban the use of such bolts in bridges because they’re vulnerable to cracking. One expert described Caltrans’ actions as “irresponsible” and potentially fraudulent. Van Derbeken also discovered that there are more than 1,200 steel bolts on the new bridge that were designed to the same flawed standards.
To understand what’s going on requires a bit of background on the making of these bolts. On bridges, harder is not better when it comes to steel. Hard or high-strength, galvanized steel can become brittle, especially in a marine environment, and so the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, which sets national standards, has banned their use on bridges.
But, according to the Chron, Caltrans got around that prohibition by calling the bolts “fasteners,” even though they’re made essentially the same way. And that wasn’t all. Caltrans also maneuvered around its own regulations that prohibit the use of galvanized fasteners on bridges because they can become too brittle as well. The agency decided to create new specifications for the design of the fasteners in order to not violate its own rules. It’s unclear, however, whether these new specifications were sufficient to make sure the fasteners won’t snap during a quake.
Moreover, more than 1,200 fasteners on the new span were designed to meet these same standards, including the 32 big bolts that already snapped. Those bolts were supplied by Ohio company Dyson Corporation in 2008, as were 192 more that were delivered in 2010. Caltrans documents show that the 32 broken bolts were made to be too hard and thus became brittle, and the 2010 bolts were designed the same way.
Earlier this week, East Bay State Senator Mark DeSaulnier announced that he had scheduled a May 14 hearing in Sacramento on the bolt scandal. “We paid for a bridge that was supposed to be unlike any other bridge in the world when it comes to safety,” DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told Van Derbeken. “Now, we are not sure we even have a run-of-the-mill bridge.”
Unfortunately, it’s too late to replace the 32 snapped bolts because crews have installed the bridge’s roadbed and so they’re no longer accessible. Caltrans is attempting to devise a jury-rigged solution to the problem. However, it can take time for hardened, galvanized steel bolts to become brittle. So Caltrans also needs to do comprehensive testing of the 192 other bolts supplied by Dyson — and take as much time as necessary to do so. At least two experts have recommended replacing the bad bolts where possible. Likewise, the agency should conduct thorough testing of the rest of the 1,200 or so bolts, and the amount of time it takes should not be a factor in the decision.
That’s why it makes sense to delay the bridge opening and celebration. If need be, the celebration can be rescheduled for 2014. A deadline of this Labor Day makes no sense when it comes to safety. After all, the sole reason why taxpayers have paid $6.4 billion for their new bridge is to ensure that it won’t fall down when the next Big One strikes.
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