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Expensive, Dumb, and Broken

May 12, 2013

Yep, that’s California.

The base of the new Bay Bridge eastern span’s signature tower is secured by  more than 400 high-strength steel rods that were galvanized under conditions  Caltrans barred as putting them at risk of cracking, The  Chronicle has learned.

The tower is the dominant feature of the $6.4 billion eastern span, which is  supposed to open over Labor Day weekend – a schedule that is now up in the air  because of problems with how the tower rods and nearly 2,000 other steel  fasteners were made.

Years ago, the semi-Republican government of California tried to build a concrete causeway across the Bay Bridge to replace the other concrete causeway that fell apart in the Loma Prieta earthquake (note: that was nearly 23 years ago now).  Most of California, at least the part that wasn’t concerned that the state was about to flush itself down the toilet (which is most of it… see why I moved?), wailed a mournful wail and wanted something PRETTTTYY.

Well, this is what you get when you debate efficacy with design safety:

Joseph Nicoletti, a veteran seismic engineer who until recently served on a  Bay Bridge advisory panel for Caltrans, said the potentially at-risk rods serve  a vital purpose – to check the shear forces in a quake.

If they failed, he said, the tower could move horizontally. “That’s something  you don’t want,” he said.

Nicoletti speculated that the pitfalls of using galvanized high-strength  steel were not fully understood by the bridge’s designers or Caltrans.

“When you are doing a state-of-the-art job, you are playing with the state  of the art in metallurgy and everything else,” he said. “I’m not surprised  something like this came up. Unfortunately, it came up at a bad time, and at  quite a cost.”

I know of many people who are hyped up over the artistic structure that the bridge could potentially be.  But at some point, you have to deal with millions of cars of traffic.  Engineering and costs need to trump prettttyyyyy unless you’re, well, unless you’re the California government.

I’ll be interested to see what happens by Labor Day, when the bridge is supposed to open.  I can’t think it’s a good story for the people of the state.

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