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Water is supposed to flow under a bridge, not into it, but as we noted last year, that is not the case for the stylish new eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which cost $6.4 billion, $5 billion more than the original estimate, and came in ten years late. All that time and money could not prevent hundreds of leaks during the first winter storm. The leaks occurred in a supposedly watertight steel chamber supporting the bridge’s roadbed, and possibly in guardrail holes for lights and service panels. Caltrans bosses had no answer and no solution, and as investigative journalist Charles Piller points out in the Sacramento Bee, that is still the case.
Holes in the bridge “continued to leak water inside the structure during recent storms.” Andrew Fremier of the Bay Area Toll Authority told Piller that efforts to caulk about 900 bolt holes for guard rails had been only partly successful and water was again collecting inside the splay chambers, the supposedly sealed rooms where the main bridge cable is secured to the new span. Fremier said that these chambers are supposed to be bone dry to prevent corrosion in the main cables and anchor rods. Piller cited independent experts who last year found corrosion and rust on strands of the main cable and anchor rods, which were also coated with salt. The experts warned that rust could make the rods and cable strands vulnerable to cracking, particularly the strands, which vibrate thousands of times a day from trucks passing over the bridge. Fremier blamed a “design error” but described the problem as a “nuisance.” Caltrans engineer Ken Brown declined to speak with Piller, but there’s more to it than rust.
Problems with the bridge’s welds and bolts prompted governor Jerry Brown to say, “I mean, look, shit happens.” Whistleblowers also thought so, and in Sacramento hearings called for a criminal investigation. That never took place, and Caltrans bosses testified that the bridge was more than twice as safe as the old span. With water still inside the bridge, not just under it, that might well be doubted. But it does remain clear that $5 billion in cost overruns and a ten-year delay cannot guarantee safety. As we noted, UC Berkeley structural engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asi believes the bridge is unsafe and declines to use it.