San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center is six months old. The huge bus station, and planned high speed rail station, opened to a lot of fanfare. And then, six weeks later, workers found cracks in the building’s structure. It’s been closed ever since, and repairs have only just begun.
What went wrong, and what's next, for the Transbay Transit Center?
This interview has been modified slightly from the recorded version.
ELI WIRTSCHAFTER (TRANSPORTATION REPORTER): So do you remember that day when we visited the transit center, just before it opened? That was six months ago already!
HANA BABA (HOST): I remember that. It was all brand new, people had so much hope that it would be this great new transit hub. But since then, the transit center has barely been open! So, I know it closed because there were some cracks in the building. Can you recap for us, first of all, how were the cracks even discovered?
WIRTSCHAFTER: It was in September, about six weeks after the transit center opened. A couple of workers were installing some roofing tiles. And they noticed a 2 foot long crack in a beam, over Fremont Street. Officials shut down the transit center that afternoon. And then that night they found a smaller crack in another beam over Fremont.
BABA: So does anyone know why those cracks formed?
WIRTSCHAFTER: After the cracks were found, the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland both wrote to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which is a Bay-Area-wide agency. And the mayors asked the MTC to investigate what went wrong. So the MTC went to work, hired a bunch of experts, and came out with some preliminary findings in December. And what they found is that some of the steel in the building was too brittle, and the way it was welded together caused it to crack. What’s incredible to me is that the whole building went through more than 21,000 inspections while it was being designed and built. The specific spots where the cracks formed were inspected and approved. And the inspectors just missed this. It didn’t look like a problem.
BABA: So that was all that went wrong, just brittle steel and bad welding?
WIRTSCHAFTER: Well, that’s kind of the micro view. You could also look at the big picture of why this whole project was so challenging. The transit center spans three blocks, right? And it’s got streets running under it. So you can think of the transit center as being built something like a house of cards. Structurally, there are triangles on the ground supporting a flat layer on top. The gaps in the triangles -- that’s where the streets run through. And at the top of those triangles where the supports meet, that’s holding a lot of weight. Just like in a house of cards. And that’s where the cracks in the building started.
BABA: So you’re saying the building could fall apart like a house of cards?
WIRTSCHAFTER: Well I don’t want to take the metaphor too far. This building was designed to withstand an 8.0 earthquake, so it’s got redundancies built into it so that if one part fails it doesn’t just collapse. Obviously it’s still standing. You know, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority -- that's the government group that runs the building -- they say the building is very safe and that they only closed it out of, quote “an abundance of caution” unquote. They keep saying that. But of course it’s pretty troubling that a crucial piece of this structure has cracked.
BABA: And is it fixable?
WIRTSCHAFTER: I sure hope so! So along with their analysis of what went wrong, the MTC made a plan of how to fix the building, or really to reinforce it. Instead of repairing those beams, they’re sandwiching them with metal plates to kind of hold it together and bear the load.
BABA: So when will the transit center re-open?
WIRTSCHAFTER: We still don’t know. Workers only just started doing reinforcement work on the building a week and a half ago. But they don’t expect to be done until the first week of June. And then after that comes another round of inspections and certifications before the building can re-open again. So no one’s saying yet when that will be.
BABA: Why is it taking so long?
WIRTSCHAFTER: Well you have to remember, this whole project took 20 years to plan and build. These monster projects just take an incredibly long time. In this case it took a couple months to figure out what went wrong, and to come up with a repair plan, then a few more weeks to get contractors for the plan, then a few more weeks to actually start working, and then you build for a couple months, and before you know it, it’s June! But you know, considering we were waiting 20 years for it to open in the first place, maybe a few more months won’t feel so long in retrospect.
BABA: Let’s talk about money. Do you know how much all these repairs will cost?
WIRTSCHAFTER: We don't have numbers yet, but the important thing to know is that the building is actually under warranty, for two years. The various contractors and subcontractors who built it will have to pay for the repairs. So taxpayers don’t have to pay for the repairs directly. But cross-bay bus riders are paying with their time, since it takes about fifteen minutes longer to get into the city, and they’re also paying with their money.
BABA: How are they paying with their money?
WIRTSCHAFTER: Well, for bus riders who take AC Transit to cross the bridge -- in January they got a fare hike of one dollar each way, and one of the reasons was to help pay for the new transit center, which will make it faster for buses to get into the city. That fare hike was planned long before the transit center opened and then shut down. So now, those bus riders are paying extra for a transit center they can’t even use.
And then, the whole time the transit center is closed, it’s not taking in any revenue. And it still has surprisingly high operating costs, even though it’s closed. The transbay authority cut back their operating budget by 27 percent while the building is closed. But that means they’re still spending about a million and a half dollars each month.
BABA: What is all that money going into?
WIRTSCHAFTER: Even with the building closed, they’re still doing a good bit of maintenance and janitorial work just to keep the building in shape. The authority pays for insurance, they pay for security for the building, and there’s various other contracts they went into before it closed that they say they can’t back out of now.
They’re taking care of the rooftop park too! Gardeners still go up to the roof every couple of days to tend to all the plants, and the landscaping. And actually, the transbay authority says the park is looking great! There was a lot of foot traffic during the first few weeks when everyone came up to check out the park, and that damaged the dirt paths. Without any of those pesky people to deal with, the rooftop park is in better shape than ever. But anyway, all those ongoing costs add up to a million and a half dollars a month.
BABA: Are those costs covered by the warranty?
WIRTSCHAFTER: The warranty is for the repair costs. But a spokesperson for the transbay authority told me that they plan to charge the contractors for all the costs of shutting the terminal down. That includes lost revenue, and costs like the investigation into what went wrong, which is expected to be more than a million dollars. But let’s say the contractors refuse to pay for that, and they go to court and win… then the public could end up holding the bag.