OAKLAND (KPIX 5/KCBS) – The Federal Highway Administration said Monday that it had launched a probe into why seemingly undesirable bolts were used on portions of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The federal agency said it would examine the California Department of Transportation’s whole process – from the very beginning of design and specification to manufacturing to installation.
Caltrans engineers recently concluded that 32 bolts broke because hydrogen penetrated the steel, which caused it to become too brittle. The bolts, made in 2008, are designed to control movement on the bridge deck during an earthquake.
An FHA spokesman said he was not sure when their findings would be complete, but local transportation officials said they welcomed the federal review.
“We want the FHA to be engaged in this process,” explained Amy Worth, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “They bring a lot of credibility in terms of independent review and a long-standing understanding of bridge construction.”
Added Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman Randy Rentschler: “I think the first thing they’re going to do is they’re going to look at the processes we’ve put in place to review all the bolts on the bridge.”
“What we want to do is to ensure that we’re involved in the most thorough look at this problem as we can with as many folks as we can, but also folks who are outside the process so they can give us a fresh pair of eyes,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new discovery that the Bay Bridge tower also has hundreds of bolts embedded in its base which were found to be vulnerable to cracking has cast additional doubt on the planned Labor Day opening of the span.
The 412 tower bolts may have been compromised through pickling – a step in the galvanizing process that Caltrans wanted left off, because it can make steel more vulnerable. However, it appears that word may not have reached the manufacturer.
“To date, we have still not confirmed that the pickling occurred and, if so, why it wasn’t caught. Our investigation is still ongoing,” wrote MTC executive director Steve Heminger in a memo obtained by KPIX 5.
Worth acknowledged that these latest glitches in the bridge’s construction could delay the opening.
“We don’t know if it’s going to open on time,” said Worth. “We will know by the end of the month.”
Worth said that while top engineers are on the job “24/7,” she noted that as the number of potentially brittle pieces of hardware add up, an on-time opening is less likely.
“My gut (feeling) is that the more and more we know in terms of what we need to do, whether it’s retrofit or replacement or evaluation, it’s making that schedule tougher and tougher to do,” she indicated.
If there were to be delays in the span’s opening, Worth speculated that it would be days long or weeks long, rather than a months long delay.
“We do need to restore public confidence in this bridge,” she said.
“The key isn’t to have a date out there that is artificial (Labor Day Weekend) although it’s nice to have something to work toward,” added Rentschler. “The most important thing is to find a date that we can get the bridge open safely.”
Asked if these problems could have been avoided altogether if the earlier “white collar bridge design” preferred by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been adopted, Worth reasoned that “hindsight is always a great exercise.”
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