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Berkeley Professor Warns of Bay Bridge Crack-up

Wednesday July 2nd, 2014   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 7:02am PDT   •  

bay-bridge_200On July 4 many motorists will be heading over the new span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge for destinations across the state and beyond. One who won’t be joining them is Abolhassan Astaneh-Asi, professor of structural engineering, mechanics and materials at the University of California at Berkeley. The professor does not believe the structure is safe and therefore will not be using the bridge. The reasons emerged in an investigative article by Charles Pillar of the Sacramento Bee, the latest of many on the structure.

“Facing rising costs and increasing delays on a $6.5 billion bridge that was already years behind schedule and billions over budget,” Pillar wrote, “Caltrans sought advice about its options from a highly regarded expert in how metal fractures. He said some cracks can remain without compromising safety. Caltrans then changed its contract and decided to put aside the welding code. Its fracture-critical bridge could now have cracks.” If those cracks grow larger “all or part of the roadway could collapse.” In a seismically unstable area, Astaneh told Pillar, the cracks “present a looming threat to public safety.” And the cracked welds are just the latest in an expanding “litany of errors” that includes suspect foundation concrete, rusted tendons, broken anchor rods, and corrosion on cables.

As we noted in “The $6.4 Billion Bridge to No Accountability,” these problems were the subject of hearings by state senator Mark DeSaulnier. He charged that cost overruns and lingering safety issues had eroded public confidence and made Californians “adverse to taxes.” A Caltrans geologist called for a criminal investigation, but no such investigation took place. Instead the California Highway Patrol was to conduct an “administrative inquiry.” Caltrans bosses remain comfortably in place, but so do the safety issues.

Pillar asked Keith Devonport, a box-girder consultant who helped manage the project in China, if he would feel safe driving over the bridge. Devonport declined to answer, but Astaneh, the UC Berkeley structural engineering professor, “said he won’t use the new bridge.” Many older bridges nationwide are now considered unsafe, but the new span of the Bay Bridge was actually built that way, despite $5 billion in cost overruns. That’s what passes for “progress” in a state that remains adverse to accountability.

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July 2014