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May 20, 2013
Editorial: Caltrans faces a corrosion of confidence

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(May 20 -- By the Editorial Board)

Meeting the Labor Day deadline for opening the long-delayed eastern span of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge must no longer be the singular focus of Caltrans. State transportation officials need to get their arms around the myriad construction flaws that have been disclosed in the last few months and years, and the engineering fixes for them.

The latest problem is the corrosion of tendons crucial to the structural integrity of the skyway section of the new bridge. The steel tendons are housed in ducts within the concrete segments forming that section of the bridge. Once the tendons were inserted, the ducts were supposed to be filled with grout within 10 days to prevent corrosion. A delay of 30 days was allowed if a rust-inhibiting powder was applied first.

As The Bee's Charles Piller reported on Sunday, construction delays stalled the grouting in some cases for up to 17 months.

During those long delays, rainwater seeped into ducts, corroding the tendons. An engineering manager for the bridge became alarmed when he spotted gallons of rusty water being pumped from ducts that housed the tendons. In one remarkable incident Piller documents, a Caltrans inspector used duct tape to temporarily seal vents where rainwater was seeping onto the openings. Caltrans eventually examined hundreds of tendons. The agency found moderate corrosion on some but ultimately concluded the problem was not serious. An expert contacted by The Bee called Caltrans testing methods "essentially worthless."

None of the dozens of experts contacted for the story think that the tendon corrosion issue is likely to cause the collapse of the bridge even in a large earthquake. But when combined with other serious construction problems disclosed previously - including cracked bolts, defective welds, flawed testing of the bridge tower's concrete foundation - the latest problem raises more doubts about Caltrans' effective management of the state's signature public works project.

Originally estimated to cost $1.3 billion, the new span's price tag has zoomed to $6.4 billion. It is years behind schedule and questions about its structural integrity continue to pile up. Those questions must be answered before the bridge is opened. It may delay the opening day celebration, but that's hardly the major concern. It's a lot cheaper and easier to fix problems before the bridge is opened than after.

Key top-level administrators at Caltrans - such as toll bridge manager Tony Anziano - continue to duck questions from Piller and other reporters examining the bridge's problems. That's one more reason the governor should commission a comprehensive, outside independent review of all the construction problems raised during the building of this bridge, with a focus on accountability. Who at Caltrans was responsible for ensuring that ducts were promptly grouted? How did this lapse go undetected for so long? Who signed off on tests of the tendons that have now come into question?

Given the earthquake threat to the existing Bay Bridge, the top priority - obviously - is getting the new span open as soon as safely possible. But why isn't Gov. Jerry Brown demanding accountability? Why does he seem to trust everything Caltrans tells him?

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