SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will not open as scheduled on Labor Day as it will take contractors until at least December to repair cracks in the bridge's seismic safety bolts, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee announced Monday.
A new opening date for the $6.4 billion crossing will be decided after the retrofit of the failed bolts is completed, which is estimated to take until at least Dec. 10, the committee said in a report.
It will take that long to make and install a steel saddle that will perform the same function as the failed bolts, Bay Area Toll Authority executive director Steve Heminger said. It is unclear how long it will take to manufacture the saddle, but it will take up to two months to install it, he said.
"You might look at it as, our belt broke and we are putting on some suspenders," said Heminger, who also is chairman of the three-member oversight committee.
"We are sorry, we are very sorry for this delay....We will be opening a safe new bridge for (commuters) as quickly as we are able to do so," he said.
The delay will create complications because of worsening weather in the fall and because transportation officials had been counting on a three-day Labor Day holiday to finish their work. Engineers will need to shut down the existing bridge for four days as they make final adjustments to divert traffic onto the new span.
However, engineers' review of other bolts throughout the structure have not found further problems, easing concerns that they could also have become brittle from exposure to hydrogen. The other bolts have been in place and under tension for three months to four years without failing, Heminger said.
"We do not believe there is any further danger" from failed bolts because the others have been performing as designed, he told reporters after briefing four state senators at the Capitol.
"They feel confident there should be no other last-minute surprises," Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said after the nearly two-hour private briefing.
However, there is a longer term danger from what is known as "stress corrosion," Heminger said. Engineers can deal with that after the bridge opens to traffic, he said.
Exposure to hydrogen was the root cause for why 32 seismic safety bolts became brittle and cracked after they were tightened in March, according to the report. The problem is considered a short-term phenomenon that occurs in metals when certain conditions apply.
Monday's report indicates that officials overseeing the project altered the original plan for treating the high-strength steel rods on the span. Initial bridge specifications required the rods to be mechanically galvanized, subjecting them to less heat and potential embrittlement than a method called hot-dip galvanizing in which the steel is "dipped into a bath of molten zinc at approximately 850 degrees Fahrenheit."
But contractors and Caltrans design staff determined that the 3-inch and 4-inch diameter tower rods being used were "too long and too heavy for the mechanical process." The decision was based partly on Caltrans' experience with the retrofit of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, where the hot-dip galvanizing method was used and rods were tightened under water, the report said.
There is little indication that the engineers discussed the far higher tension levels and potential corrosion problems that could be anticipated on the Bay Bridge, the report said.
The opening of the bridge has been in doubt as crews work to install the repair for the cracked seismic safety bolts – important pieces that hold a shock-absorber-like piece called a "shear key" to the bridge deck so that the structure can move safely during a quake.
Making and installing the saddle will cost a minimum $15 million, with lawsuits likely to determine who bears the cost for shoring up the bridge because of the failed bolts, said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate transportation committee.
The bridge is replacing the span damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
DeSaulnier recalled first voting to build the bridge in 1998 when it was projected to cost $1.1 billion and open by 2003, and be more seismically safe than any similar structure in the world.
"We're now at $6.3 billion, we're 10 years late and now we're going to be later still so we put the driving public at risk for longer – much longer – than we wanted," DeSaulnier said.
Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, said lawmakers should embark on a detailed review once the bridge opens.
"There are a lot of glaring problems with this project that we can learn from," said Cannella, a civil engineer.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams also contributed to this report.