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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bay Bridge Opening Could Actually Happen Labor Day After All

Posted By on Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 5:08 PM

click to enlarge Does it look ready to you? - FLICKR/DB TRAVELS

Today, transportation authorities met in Oakland to talk about whether or not the Bay Bridge could still open over Labor Day as scheduled using a temporary fix.

Earlier this week, officials confirmed the new Bridge will not open on Sept. 3 as planned, but would most likely open in December — if not later. However, this morning, independent experts surprised everyone when they presented a solution that would have the new bridge open to traffic on Labor Day just as planned.

But before that discussion took place, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee gave their own presentation, detailing what went wrong and where, and who is to blame.

Steve Heminger, who chairs the oversight committee, used the meeting to stress how important it is for the Bridge authorities to outline a clear path for fixing the various issues, using nothing but sound research and transparency. This, he said, will help regain the public's trust that was lost when the bridge's high-strength steel rods failed as crews worked on the new East Span of the Bay Bridge four months ago.

"It's important to explain to people what happened and who ought to be held accountable for that," said Heminger, who is executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

As crews worked on the bridge in March, they applied tension to 96 rods that secured a set of shear keys — the pieces of equipment that make the bridge seismically safe. But once the rods were tightened and more pressure was placed on them, 32 fractured within just a few days. Those fractures were blamed on a phenomenon called hydrogen embrittlement, which is the process where hydrogen atoms creep into and accumulate in steel, thereby causing a weakness in the structure of the material.

Among the many failings, Heminger said the steel used in the rods was not up to snuff.

Talk, talk, talk - JOSEPH GEHA
  • Joseph Geha
  • Talk, talk, talk

He outlined what he called a paradox in the project planning, being that it was determined the steel rods had "'...higher than normal susceptibility of the steel to hydrogen embrittlement,'" yet still met the specifications set by the designer and owner of the project. That responsibility was shared among Caltrans, T.Y Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol Design Joint Venture, and American Bridge/Fluor Joint Venture, the owner of the bridge, the engineer and the contractor, respectively.

An insurance claim has been filed with the engineer in hopes that they will split the cost of the retrofitting since their workers were involved in the mishaps that caused the problematic rod situation.

Meanwhile, authorities are scrambling to fix the problem. One idea currently under way that would be a permanent solution, although delay the opening, is the installation of steel saddles over the unsecured shear keys. That could cost anywhere between $10 and $20 million while delaying opening day until December.

However, the Caltrans' Seismic Peer Review Panel says there is a quicker and equally safe way around this mess. Frieder Seible, chair of the Seismic Peer panel, surprised the oversight committee members when he presented a seismically safe plan to "shim," or place steel plates in between the bearings adjacent to the shear keys that are insecure, thanks to the broken rods. Combined with the other two shear keys that are functional, the bearings would provide all of the seismic safety necessary to move traffic onto the new span, he said.

Seible said this could be achieved within a month, allowing the new bridge to be fully functional while the steel saddles are being fixed. "We don't have to wait until December," Seible said to the room full of reporters. "We do not know when the next earthquake will occur — we have to assume that it can occur any day."

But alas, after two hours of back-and-forth discussion, it appears that there still is no clear word on when you'll be able to cruise across the new Bay Bridge.

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Joseph Geha


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