Top state transportation officials today approved a plan to open the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge on Sept. 3, saying that it’s important for the public’s safety that the new bridge be in operation as soon as possible.
The unanimous vote by the state Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee at a meeting at the MetroCenter in Oakland ends five months of uncertainty about the fate of the bridge after nearly one-third of the 96 bolts that secure earthquake shock absorbers known as shear keys to the deck of the bridge failed when they were tightened in March.
The shear keys are designed to prevent swaying during an earthquake, which is a key element in the construction of the $6.4 billion span because the goal is to make it seismically safe since a portion of the existing bridge failed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Transportation officials had been planning for three years to open the new span on Sept. 3, but on July 8 they announced that the bridge opening would have to be delayed because they didn’t expect the retrofit of the failed bolts to be completed until Dec. 10.
However, two days later, on July 10, a panel of bridge engineering experts rekindled hope that the new span could open around Labor Day after all because they believed a short-fix could be implemented quickly.
That opinion was supported by reports by engineering experts from the Federal Highway Administration and two engineering firms that were presented at the committee’s meeting today.
FHA division administrator Vince Mammano said, “We see no reason to delay the opening of the bridge before the shear key fix is completed.”
Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger, who chairs the three-member Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, said the endorsement of the short-term fix by the three outside parties was crucial because it assures the public that the short-term fix is safe.
Heminger said once that issue was settled, the only remaining issue was whether the remaining work on the eastern span could be completed by Labor Day and the answer was that it could.
The work will require that the Bay Bridge be shut down on the night of Wednesday, August 28 for about five days. Heminger said the span will be reopened by the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 3, the day after Labor Day.
Heminger said transportation officials decided to close the Bay Bridge over Labor Day weekend instead of other weekends in September because traffic is lighter at that time and a lot of planning had already been in done for that weekend in anticipation of opening the new span on Sept. 3.
The long-term solution to fixing the broken bolts on the eastern span is to cover them with an exterior saddle and cable system that is encased in concrete.
The short-term fix involves inserting large steel plates, known as shims, into each of four bearings, enhancing their ability to safely distribute energy during an earthquake.
Work on the long-term solution will continue after the short-term fix is completed in about ten days.
Andrew Fremier, the deputy executive director of the Bay Area Toll Authority, said the work that will be done over Labor Day weekend is fairly simple and mainly consists of paving, striping and drainage work.
Commenting on the problems with the bolts on the new eastern span, Heminger said, “We’ve taken our lumps and learned our lessons” and the matter “has national relevance” because it will be instructive for future bridge projects.
Reflecting on the fact that it has taken nearly 24 years to build the new span after its partial failure in the 1989 earthquake, Heminger said, “I’ve been very frustrated at the inability go keep people on the end line,” which he said is opening the new structure as quickly as possible because the current span is unsafe.
He said, “The story is ending well but the road to get here was far too long and far too winding” and he wishes that the new span could have been opened three years ago.
Heminger said he believes the new span will be safe, saying, “I want to be on the bridge when an earthquake hits because it will be safer than most things around here, including most of our houses.”
Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News