Local Bay Area transportation officials are asking why the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) didn’t tell them about reports of potentially corrosive leaks from the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge much before the news became public last week.
It would be cynical to think Caltrans was too busy making the final $49 million bonus payment to the project’s prime contractor, American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises, as reported by Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross at the San Francisco Chronicle. But the timing might not sit well with some.
It’s probably safe to say that would include the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a local agency involved in oversight of the $6.4 billion public works project that was completed on Labor Day. The Chronicle also reported that Caltrans failed to tell them two months ago that rainwater was leaking from what should have been sealed portions of the bridge.
The contractor received $20 million of its bonus for making the September 2013 deadline, allowing for a splashy holiday debut. Although basic construction is completed, some final touches and repairs still need to be made while haggling continues over who is going to pay for fixes already completed.
The project was plagued by problems throughout and, despite making its Labor Day deadline, was about six years behind the original projected deadline. The September finish was put in doubt in March 2013 when 32 anchoring bolts (9 to 24 feet long) popped out during stress tests. Metallurgists and engineers told the Contra Costa Times that the problem could, and should, have been avoided. “There is a lot of technology out there that could have been used to prevent this from happening,” private engineering consultant Louis Raymond told the newspaper.
Caltrans found out in early December that the bridge was leaking and rainwater was gathering in hollow portions of the steel superstructure. The agency told the locals 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. The agency also administers toll money from Bay Area bridges and its executive director, Steve Heminger, expressed concern that the MTC might get stuck with a bunch of expenses “that are going to bite us in the bottom later on.”
Caltrans officials downplayed any threat of corrosion, claiming leaks were expected, and expressed confidence that the problem was manageable. They also admitted they didn’t know were the leaks were coming from. Insufficient caulking and holes drilled for electrical wiring are early candidates for blame. Some service panels on guardrails also apparently weren’t sealed.
Caltrans' Chief Deputy Director Richard Land told the Chronicle that he didn’t see any early signs of corrosion. But independent metallurgists expressed concern when they viewed photographs from the scene. Lisa Thomas, a Berkeley metallurgist, said it looked like “active corrosion” and warned, “You shouldn't be seeing that—no way.”