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New Bay Bridge still shaky? An Interview with journalist Jaxon Van Derbeken

Flickr user Eugene Kim

The latest news of possible problems on the new Bay Bridge? Steel rods anchoring the 6.5 billion dollar span have shifted and might threaten its stability in the case of an earthquake.

This is just the most recent in a laundry list of problems on the bridge. In recent months, Caltrans has come under fire for faulty welds, failed rods, and leaky decks. Jaxon Van Derbeken, an award-winning reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, has reported extensively on the Bay Bridge. He sat down with KALW’s Ben Trefny.

There's the question of what kind of bridge did we get for 6.4 or 5 billion dollars? How durable is it?

Ben Trefny: So does this mean that in an earthquake-- if there’s a significant earthquake-- this “earthquake-proof” bridge is actually not earthquake proof? Jaxon Van Derbeken: Well Caltrans doesn’t think that there’s any issue here. This is more of a long-term thing in the sense that they just don’t want this to ever be a risk. This thing has a 150-year baked in lifespan… Trefny: …So they said, that’s why they pumped billions of dollars in… Van Derbeken: The idea is to preclude any additional wear or problems that might occur since the bridge just opened last September. They are trying to clean up the issues-- everything from the paint to the elevator into the tower. There are a number of things they are working on. Trefny: [Like] Making sure the palm fronds on the new palm trees don’t come down onto the roadway… Van Debeken: Yeah. Trefny: …But a lot of these things are cosmetic and not so significant for safety. It seems like they’re fixing a lot of things for a bridge that was completed for an exorbitant cost. Van Derbeken: Well, they would argue no. They wanted the bridge open as soon as possible. Because what they had [was] a seismic opening-- it’s like opening the store, or a soft opening in the sense they don’t have all these things resolved, they wanted to get the bridge open… Trefny: …Because it was safer than the old bridge. Van Derbeken: Right. The idea is to get traffic onto the new safer bridge, and most experts agree that, warts and all, whatever flaws this bridge has baked into it it’s likely safer than the old span. Trefny: So essentially you’re saying then, because they rushed the opening a bit so they could have something in place that is more safe than the old bridge, that there were more expected problems that Caltrans was anticipating that they could resolve on the fly-- which is what they’re doing right now. Van Derbeken: Right. And then there were some unexpected problems too. But, there’s one problem that they say they expected, but I don’t think they expected it to the extent it occurred and that was the leaks. They had over 900 leaks into these hollow steel structures that make up the road deck. They had drilled holes into them to install the guardrail systems on either side-- and they’re reconfiguring how they are cinched down because the whole water has gotten in and has leaked into the steel structure below. Trefny: Does it cause rust? Van Derbeken: You just don’t want to introduce water into a steel structure if you don’t have to, and they say water can come out the bottom through weep holes and everything. Standing water can cause corrosion. You’d have to clean it out every time it rained. It’s a fairly lengthy span. So they decided that when they finally turn the bridge over to local authorities later this year or maybe early next, they want the water problem resolved. Trefny: So Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) has charged that Caltrans engaged in a willful cover-up of the many issues that are emerging with the bridge, what do you think of that allegation? Van Derbeken: Well I think that’s based largely on some of the testimony that happened during his hearing earlier this year. In which Caltrans officials who were moved off the project had asserted –that --their concerns. They had been told by project management that they should make sure that their reports were accurate, that’s what the management says they were telling them to do. But on the other hand, they’re saying that their concerns -- they told them don’t put them in writing. They were told don’t write memos-- because they could be discoverable under the public record act. Management response was – ‘well we just told you to make sure that your reports were accurate.’ One person wrote a memo that asked for the work to stop. He was an advisor /contract quality assurance expert. He had said that the process by which they were making the giant steel decks was flawed and that needed to be stopped and reworked. And ultimately what happened was his firm lost the newly awarded quality assurance contract and then basically all the same people except for the man who blew the whistle-- most of them were brought back under the newly created entity. Which had some questionable experience gaps yet they were brought in by a vote within Caltrans-- there were representatives of Bay Bridge officials were there too on this particular project. The firm whose leader in China had blown the whistle on the flawed welds he ended up losing his job because his firm lost out, and yet a number of employees jumped ship and went to the new firm. So there’s some questions about that. Those are kind of the root of the Senator’s allegations. And I think that the jury is still out on that. Caltrans-- their explanation didn’t satisfy the senator. He basically said he didn’t believe them. Trefny: Now he’s saying now it’s going to cost the taxpayers more and more money. I mean obviously the price tag of the bridge was 6 and a half bill dollars was not sufficient to deliver a bridge that’s not going to have problems because there’s millions more that are fixes being done right now and he’s concerned about more coming in the future. Van Derbeken: Right, Just to make the distinction these are toll-payer dollars not taxpayer dollars. As the issue of repairs go forward there’s a pretty small maintenance budget, if something is unanticipated it’ll blow that maintenance budget out of the water pretty quick. A classic example is if there was another rod to fail or another series of rods to fail-- which Caltrans doesn’t believe is at risk-- but they’re still studying. You know that could pretty much exhaust the maintenance budget at one fell swoop. So there are issues going forward, and then there’s the question of what kind of bridge did we get for 6.4 or 5 billion dollars? How durable is it? It’s supposed to last 150 years but if it has cracks baked in it could fail in a matter of five to ten years as some Caltrans officials have posited, you know then what kind of deal did we get?

To listen to the interview, use the audio player above. 

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