Bay Area Residents Forced To Wait For Bridge Repairs

One of the largest public works project in California history is struggling to re-gain public confidence amid construction delays and questions about whether the new bridge will be safe. A scheduled opening for Labor Day is in doubt as officials race to fix a series of bad bolts that were meant to keep the bridge secure in a catastrophic earthquake.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to California, where the largest public works project in the history of that state is running over budget, over time; and has lost the public's confidence. The new, eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, with a price tag of $6.4 billion, was scheduled to open on Labor Day. There's still time, but that deadline is in doubt as questions are raised about safety.NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: It's been 24 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake caused a portion of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge to collapse.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The quake, reported by KPIX as the strongest since 1906, occurred at 5:05 Pacific Time.

GONZALES: Minutes later, the first reports of damage came in.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The east side of the Bay Bridge has collapsed. It would be - it would be miraculous if there is no loss of life. Thirty feet? A 30-feet section, I am told, has collapsed.

GONZALES: One person died on the bridge that day. That was 1989. State officials decided to build a new, safer bridge. Now in 2013, Bay-area residents are still waiting for the span to be completed. State transportation officials thought they could finally see the light at the end of the bridge, if you will - that is, until they discovered they had a major problem.

Thirty-two large, steel bolts, attached to something called a shear key, busted when they were tightened. The shear key is meant to keep the bridge from swaying in a major earthquake, says Caltrans engineer William Casey.

WILLIAM CASEY: When the bridge wants to move left, right, and up and back, it just keeps it in line. It doesn't let it move too far, so you don't have a problem. Because if it just starts flopping in the wind, you can get yourself into trouble.

GONZALES: And engineers can't simply replace the busted bolts because they're encased in concrete. So their remedy is to strap a saddle over the shear key, to hold it in place. It's basically a seismic safety system for the seismic safety system, and it still has to be fabricated and installed.

Meanwhile, Caltrans is testing more than 2,000 other high-strength, steel bolts on the bridge to see whether they need to be replaced. And those are just some of the problems engineers have faced. There have also been bad welds, corrosion of steel strands that hold the skyway together, and the unintended shearing of railing bolts.

BRIAN MARONEY: We had some challenges. Actually, we've had challenges, you know, in just about - it's always hard to build a bridge.

GONZALES: Caltrans lead engineer Brian Maroney, speaking recently before the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, was trying to restore public confidence in the new bridge.

MARONEY: I'm convinced that it's still appropriate to move the public on to a new bridge, even with some of these flaws still in place.

GONZALES: But that's a really hard sell. Local editorials have blasted Caltrans, saying it's done little to bolster public confidence. The San Francisco Chronicle went as far as saying the public cannot, and should not, trust Caltrans when it says the new bridge is safe. There seems to be no end to the questions about the bridge's construction problems. Here's transportation commissioner and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.

MAYOR JEAN QUAN: And so I'd like to get an assessment. If you add all of these things up, do we still have a 150-year bridge? Did we get what we paid for?

GONZALES: What toll-payers paid for is a sensitive subject. Back in 1998, Caltrans said the bridge could be built for a little over $1 billion. Today, the cost is $6.4 billion. Mark DeSaulnier is chairman of the State Senate Transportation Committee.

STATE SEN. MARK DESAULNIER: The undeniable truth right now is, it's 10 years late; we've put people at risk by keeping them on the existing bridge. It's 1989 that the earthquake happened. It's grossly over-budget, and they can't tell us how safe it is - or if it's safe. By anyone's definition, that is not success.

GONZALES: Caltrans officials say they still hope to meet their original deadline, and open the bridge on Labor Day. But they say they can't make their final judgment on that until July 10.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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