EDITORIAL: Bay Bridge construction has significant safety problems

Fundraising for the opening bash planned for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge -- scheduled for the Labor Day weekend -- has been suspended. It's clear that the new span's cracked bolts and other problems pose serious risks to a safe opening of this bridge.

As The Sacramento Bee reported several weeks ago, 32 of 96 giant bolts used to support seismic safety equipment cracked when tightened in March. That's a failure rate of more than 30%, alarming to say the least. Then the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Bay Bridge's new eastern span has more than 1,200 bolts made, like the bolts that cracked, from a type of galvanized steel that a nationwide group of transportation officials banned from bridge use because it was susceptible to cracking.

Incredibly, Caltrans' own bridge design manual forbids the use of the type of steel rods in question. Caltrans officials told the Chronicle that the Bay Bridge had different project-specific criteria and that the manual's "generic specifications are for run-of-the-mill-bridges, and this bridge is not run-of-the-mill." Experts in the field contacted by the Chronicle expressed shock.

The suspect bolts play a vital role in safety. Engineers say they anchor structures that are supposed to keep the bridge stable in an earthquake, banding the main cables together and binding them to the road decks.

Caltrans officials are scrambling to find out what went wrong, engineering a fix. Cracked bolts are just the latest of a string of construction mishaps that have plagued the rebuilding of the $6.4 billion eastern span of the Bay Bridge. The Sacramento Bee previously broke the story about a Caltrans employee who ignored proper procedures for testing structural integrity of concrete in the bridge's tower foundations. Inspectors have also found microscopic cracks in steel deck sections fabricated in China. The newspaper also reported Caltrans is working with contractors to fix defects on portions of 20 welds -- each nearly 33 feet long and up to 4 inches thick -- on the tower of the new bridge.

It is vital for Caltrans to open the new span as quickly as possible, since the old one remains highly vulnerable to an earthquake, which could occur any day. But the bridge must be safe upon opening.

Legislators will hold a May 14 hearing to discuss the issue. Caltrans officials need to have some answers.