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Bridge Full of Troubled Water

Thursday February 13th, 2014   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 6:02am PST   •  

bridge1_squareWe recently noted that a hearing in the State Transportation and Housing Committee raised concerns about the safety of the new eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Now it turns out some of the witnesses knew what they were talking about.

As the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “a supposedly watertight steel chamber supporting the roadbed of the new Bay Bridge eastern span sprang hundreds of leaks during the first big storm of the rainy season.” Caltrans bosses denied that the water was already causing damage to the bridge’s backbone structure. Metallurgical expert Lisa Thomas, who also testified in the hearing, said the steel showed signs of “active corrosion.” That is not a good thing.

Caltrans bosses said that caulking may be failing to keep water out, but the structure has sprung leaks in other places. Water may be entering through guardrail holes for lights, or through service panels. But as the Chronicle explained, Caltrans bosses “have yet to figure out all the reasons why the steel structure is leaking, and so they have not yet devised a solution.” And any solution is likely to be “high maintenance.”

Leaks are not the only problem for the bridge, which cost $6.4 billion, $5 billion more than the original estimate, and came in ten years late. In the recent hearings, several witnesses testified that Caltrans bosses compromised quality by ignoring problems with welds, bolts and rods. They also opted for a kind of steel prone to embrittlement, and that is why a number of rods cracked.

Caltrans bosses downplayed these costly problems, reassigned the whistleblowers, and even told engineers not to write things down to avoid public disclosure. Senator Mark DeSaulnier, cited “a deliberate and willful attempt to obfuscate what is happening to the public.” But he did not follow up on one whistleblower’s call for a “criminal investigation,” a perfectly reasonable request.

This week DeSaulnier conducted another informational hearing, based on this background report, about reforming Caltrans. If the senator is serious about reform, he might start with some criminal charges. Unless of course he thinks a leaky, corroding bridge is perfectly safe for Californians.

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February 2014