Bay Bridge bolt fix narrowed to two options—more answers coming in two weeks 

click to enlarge Dozens of cracked steel rods were found on a section of the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span, prompting seismic safety concerns. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • Dozens of cracked steel rods were found on a section of the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span, prompting seismic safety concerns.

Transportation officials said Wednesday that it is still too early to determine if a batch of broken bolts on the new Bay Bridge eastern span will prevent the planned Labor Day opening, since major answers about the repairs are still two weeks away.

In March, inspectors discovered more than 30 broken steel rods — which bolt the bridge’s deck to its tower piers for seismic safety — on the new eastern span. Originally, officials said the problem would not interfere with the planned opening of the span, but they backed off that assertion earlier this month.

Bridge officials are still considering two potential fixes for the broken bolts, who will be on the hook to pay for the needed repairs, and whether another batch of bolts made by the same manufacturer need to be removed, too.

It was determined that “hydrogen embrittlement,” a common phenomenon in steel, caused the 30 steel rods to crack, said Malcolm Dougherty, executive director of Caltrans, the state department that owns the Bay Bridge.

It was still being determined if the hydrogen, which causes steel to crack, was infused during the manufacturing process of the batch of 96 rods or from exposure to elements, such as rainwater, Dougherty said at a Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional body that manages the span.

At the meeting, the two repair alternatives were discussed. Both fixes involve steel fortifications that would bolster the broken rods instead of replacing them, since the structures are already embedded in concrete, according to Andre Boutros, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, one of the oversight groups reviewing the project. Both plans would retain high seismic stability levels, he said.

Boutros said a decision on the fix would be made within two weeks, at which time officials could determine the cost and timeline of the preferred alternative, and whether the fix would affect the opening celebrations planned for Labor Day.

Along with a fix for the 96 bolts, bridge engineers will also decide in the coming days if a second batch of 192 bolts, made two years after the broken ones, need to come out of the span. Even though those bolts have showed no signs of cracking, they’re undergoing extensive tests to determine their structural sufficiency. If they are found faulty and do need to be removed, there is a chance they could be extracted after the span’s opening, since those bolts are not completely embedded in concrete like the other ones, Dougherty said.

Dougherty conceded Wednesday that a confluence of events — including faulty quality-assurance testing, bad positioning of the bolts and shoddy material from the manufacturer — could have all contributed to the issues. As a result, there is a chance that taxpayers may at least partially bear the cost for fixing the bolts.

Like most of the lingering questions, bridge officials hope to have information on the payment process by the next scheduled meeting of the MTC’s bridge authority, which is set for May 8. Until then, they insisted that their top priority is assuring that the span is safe before it’s opened up to vehicle traffic.

“We will open the new east span only when it’s ready,” said Steve Heminger, director of the MTC. “Safety is not just job one. It’s the only job we’ve got.”

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Will Reisman

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