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Broken Bolts Is Latest Woe for Late, Over Budget and Earthquake-Prone Bay Bridge

August 12, 2013 at 6:00 PM EDT
Decades after an earthquake hit San Francisco's Bay Bridge, damaging a 2.2 mile stretch connecting the city to Oakland, a new replacement section is nearly complete. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the project's history of delays, cost overruns and challenges, including the latest problem: broken bolts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the nation’s largest public works projects is a critical and iconic new bridge spanning San Francisco Bay. But, even as it nears completion, anticipation has been tempered by worries over recently discovered problems along its eastern span, as well as the political and engineering battles that have delayed construction for decades.

Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: Construction may be nearly finished on a new portion of the Bay Bridge, but concern over broken steel bolts, possible corrosion and long delays has eclipsed any excitement over the upcoming opening of the new roadway.

In 1989, the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Bridge, which had opened in 1936, causing part of the deck to buckle, killing one motorist and disabling for more than a month the span that still carries 270,000 cars a day between San Francisco and Oakland. It remains the second busiest bridge in the nation.

A design for a new span was proposed, fought over, changed, and eventually built alongside the old one to replace the damaged 2.2 miles that stretch east toward Oakland. But it hasn’t opened yet, and as state Senator Mark DeSaulnier charges, the project is way too expensive and way overdue.

SEN. MARK DESAULNIER, D-Calif.: They said that they could do this signature span for $1.1 billion. It’s now $6.3 billion and it’s 10 years late. It’s atrocious. Now, on these mega-projects, whether it’s the Big Dig in Boston or this project, the people who advocate for the project tend to come in and lowball the price.

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SPENCER MICHELS: While cost overruns are a huge issue, DeSaulnier also says the delays have put the whole Bay Area at risk.

MARK DESAULNIER: The people who I represent pay the tolls that have paid for that negligence. And they have also had their life put at risk by staying on the old bridge.

SPENCER MICHELS: The new span is designed to be much safer than the 75-year-old cantilever section it is replacing. Malcolm Dougherty is director of Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation.

MALCOLM DOUGHERTY, California Department of Transportation: It’s also a bridge that’s being built in between two major earthquake faults, the Hayward Fault and the San Andreas Fault. This is an incredible feat to build this bridge and replace that one. This bridge is built for ground motions that are expected over a 1,500-year period, 150-year life, which is way above and beyond any other bridge design.

SPENCER MICHELS: Steve Heminger directs the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, one of the lead agencies building the bridge.

STEVEN HEMINGER, Metropolitan Transportation Commission: If we had another Loma Prieta earthquake 60 miles away, it could still damage that old bridge. If we had a Loma Prieta earthquake nearby, it could drop that bridge into the bay. This bridge would survive both of those with relative ease.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s been nearly a quarter-of-a-century since the Bay Bridge was damaged, and since then, there’s been no major earthquake since to make matters worse. But one is coming, geologists warn us, and then we will find out how well this fix holds up.

SPENCER MICHELS: New technologies allowed engineers to design the eye-catching 525-foot tower that supports the roadway below, making the bridge the largest self-anchored suspension bridge in the world.

But that and other seismic features also came with problems that have cast a shadow over the whole project. The most recent was the discovery that steel bolts put in place to stabilize the bridge during an earthquake were becoming brittle and cracking due to hydrogen forming near them. Fixing the bolts may take months.

Thomas Devine, a professor of material sciences and engineering at U.C. Berkeley, is convinced that the improper use of high -strength steel was one of the reasons the bolts cracked.

THOMAS DEVINE, University of California, Berkeley: If people that are making use of these high-strength steels are not sufficiently tuned into the intricacies of high-strength steels, then they miss the fact that these steels have their limitations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Devine says that the problem should have been foreseen by engineers.

THOMAS DEVINE: There’s two possibilities. One is that proper engineers were in place, metallurgists were in place, and yet their warnings were ignored. The other possibility is that the metallurgists were not in place, and that’s the reason why we have this particular outcome.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bridge builders counter they had metallurgists on staff, and committees reviewing corrosion protection. That’s not to say the broken bolts were not a real problem, says Caltrans’ Dougherty.

MALCOLM DOUGHERTY: The bolts are a very real construction problem. Nobody expected 32 of those bolts to break once they were tensioned up in place.

SPENCER MICHELS: Berkeley’s Devine says too few of the bolts have been examined to come up with a proper fix, a charge dismissed by Heminger, whose has come up with a solution.

STEVEN HEMINGER: Those bolts are going to be replaced with a saddle, so that the device that they were going to secure will be just as secure in the future.

SPENCER MICHELS: Other problems have plagued the construction project as well. Devine says tendons — bundles of high-strength wire under tension — were supposed to be grouted within a 30-day period to protect them, but were left exposed for 15 months. He charges that testing has been inadequate.

THOMAS DEVINE: During this period of time, corrosion has taken place. It’s simply not known whether or not these strands sustain stress corrosion cracking, hydrogen-assisted cracking.

SPENCER MICHELS: That problem has been resolved, say the bridge builders, who chafe at the stream of bad publicity.

STEVEN HEMINGER: I have to say that most of the criticism that we have heard lately about this bridge, I would call phantom problems. They’re not real problems. They’re just somebody digging deep enough and finding some irregularity and blowing it out of proportion.

SPENCER MICHELS: He’s also critical of the local press, which has covered the bridges woes extensively.

STEVEN HEMINGER: I have to say, lately, I think they have probably been overdoing it, in terms of scaring people so much about the integrity of this structure that folks are forgetting that the bridge we ought to be worried about in terms of safety is not the one I’m standing on. It’s the one over there.

SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, from all indications, the public is concerned and angry about the delays and safety.

HILARY HIDE, San Francisco: I think they should get it right and not open it until it’s absolutely safe. They need to go back to company and make sure that we have 100 percent safe bolts.

CAROLYN RAYMOND, San Francisco: I think that they should open it, the new bridge, because I think the current bridge is not a good solution to drive on.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some of that concern over safety and costs on the Bay Bridge parallels anxiety about other bridges and roadways across the nation, says Caltrans’ Dougherty.

MALCOLM DOUGHERTY: It’s very representative of a lot of infrastructure projects and the transportation needs throughout the country as far as aging infrastructure.

SPENCER MICHELS: But fixing large infrastructure requires good management, and that, Senator DeSaulnier says, has been lacking. Caltrans has taken the brunt of the criticism.

MARK DESAULNIER: Caltrans is dysfunctional. These are big insular institutions that are not responsive to the public.

STEVEN HEMINGER: When Caltrans was dealing with this project by themselves, there was very little oversight and there was very little transparency. We would go for years at a time and not know what was going on, and then there would be this huge cost explosion.

SPENCER MICHELS: As a result, the state legislature formed a three-agency committee to oversee the whole project, and keep it on schedule. Along the way, higher tolls — now up to $6 a car — were adopted to pay for bridge construction.

STEVEN HEMINGER: Ironically — and most people I think tend to think that the federal government is still the big player in infrastructure in America. It’s not. And this bridge is a very good example.

This $6 billion bridge has 5 percent federal money. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you’re going to be waiting around for Uncle Sam or for the folks in Sacramento to bail out our infrastructure problem.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, some officials fear the annoyance at cost overruns and delays on the Bay Bridge may have doomed public support for other bridges and roads that need attention. And no one is yet certain when the bolts will be fixed or when the new bridge will open to traffic. It was supposed to be Labor Day, but it may be closer to Christmas.

GWEN IFILL: Work has now begun to replace the broken bolts with a steel saddle. Caltrans says the process will be completed by December 10.