New Bay Bridge, on the right (photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
The opening of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last Labor Day barely interrupted the steady stream of revelations about shoddy work and suspicious compromises that continued unabated last week and brought unanswered calls for an independent review of the $6.5 billion project.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Saturday that the company that designed the bridge warned the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in 2010 that welds holding the road deck together were at risk because the agency let the builder proceed with mismatched Chinese-manufactured steel sections.
A report by engineers with the firm T.Y. Lin International, which was obtained by the newspaper through the state Public Records Act, informed Caltrans at the time that the resulting lopsided welds could shorten the expected 150-year lifespan of the bridge and make it vulnerable in an earthquake.
Caltrans rules normally would have prevented welding compensation for a mismatch that bad, but instead applied less stringent standards used by a national group, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Caltrans chief engineer Brian Maroney told the Chronicle, “In my professional judgment, I didn't think it was worth it to drag public dollars into a battle with national experts.”
Just days before, the Sacramento Bee reported that a key cable—with 137 steel strands—and connecting rods were already rusting because chambers designed to be airtight and watertight were not. The newspaper consulted independent engineering experts who warned of potentially serious long-term problems if the corrosion was not immediately addressed.
Bee reporter Charles Piller found a couple of elected public officials who favored an independent investigation—S.F. Supervisor David Campos, a member of the Bay Area Toll Authority, and Democratic state Senator Mark DeSaulnier from Concord—but Caltrans said it had already done that.
“We have allowed independent experts, including the (Caltrans) Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel, to examine all credible issues,” bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon told the newspaper.
Campos had a slightly different definition of independent: “I think of experts who have had nothing to do with the project, who come into it without any preconceived notions,” he said. “It’s a matter of best practice.”
Caltrans found out in early December that the bridge was leaking and rainwater was gathering in other hollow portions of the steel superstructure. The agency told the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a local agency involved in oversight of the project in late January. The leaks didn’t become public until February 9. The MTC will take over a lot of responsibilities for maintenance of the bridge after everyone finally signs off on the project, possible by the summer.