New Bay Bridge repairs should focus on safety, not completion date

The new Bay Bridge span has issues that need to be fully and adequately addressed before the eastern section opens to vehicular traffic. While local, state and federal officials should work in an expedited manner, they should not rush to meet the artificial deadline of a holiday weekend for any grand opening ceremonies.

It is wise to remember why the new eastern span is being constructed. It will replace a portion of bridge that we know is prone to damage during earthquakes because one section already collapsed in a large temblor. Part of the eastern section collapsed during 1989’s Loma Prieta quake, and plans to replace the section that connects the East Bay and Yerba Buena Island have been in the works ever since.

Now, years past deadline and over budget largely due to the bridge design that ultimately was selected, the span is close to completion. But new problems that popped up months ago need to be addressed. At issue are about 1,200 metal bolts of varying types that are used as fasteners on the bridge. Some of these are load-bearing, while others exist for seismic stabilization in the case of an earthquake.

In March, 32 rods that theoretically aren’t load-bearing cracked while being tightened by workers. That launched a rush to find a fix for that part of the bridge as well as an investigation into the vulnerability of other metal pieces. The steels rods at issue most likely cracked due to a phenomenon called hydrogen embrittlement, and other metal parts provided by the same Ohio-based manufacturer is undergoing tests to ensure that they are not faulty as well.

The bridge is owned by the state but run by a regional body. That makes the decision-making regarding the span more than a little tricky. But ultimately, the decision regarding when to open the new span belongs to Caltrans. And agency officials have said they may defer the question to Gov. Jerry Brown.

To compound the potential delays, last week the Federal Transportation Agency also asked to also double-check the state inspections, a worthwhile backup since it was state officials who failed to catch the bad steel in the first place.

As all of this testing moves forward, a cacophony of voices has asked whether all these repairs and inspections will be completed in time for the span’s planned opening on Labor Day weekend. But that is an artificial deadline that should not matter. After 24 years of often-inexcusable delays, there should be no last-minute rush to suddenly open the bridge, since days, weeks or even months will not matter in the long run. The $6 billion new span is not a showpiece for the opening weekend, but rather a bridge that needs to safely stand for decades to come.

Officials have many factors to weigh in deciding the opening date, which they have vowed to announce in about two weeks.

There is the seismic safety of the new span and the knowledge that traffic is currently traveling across an old span known to be unsafe in n earthquake. But one factor that shouldn’t weigh on anyone’s mind is the Labor Day weekend deadline, which is nothing more than a date on the calendar.

editorialsJerry BrownMetropolitan Transportation CommissionOpinion

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