California Gov. Jerry Brown – who’s also the former California governor known as “Moonbeam” – proved again the nickname is accurate and time hasn’t changed him. Now he’s dealing with the construction of a new eastern span of the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge to replace the one damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

When faced with yet another major construction error – in fact, one of a long series – which puts the ultimate seismic safety of the new bridge in question, Brown, speaking to reporters referred to the size of the project and said that in such efforts, “S–t happens.”

Yeah, Jer, it sure does.

In this case, the pile of that stuff keeps growing.

Consider: Early on, questions about concrete stability; then, cracks in Chinese steel, defective welds, rust, evidence of falsification of inspection reports, sheared rail bolts and most recently, the breaking of seismic safety anchor bolts, which are supposed to protect the bridge from motion extremes during a quake.

Apparently they were left exposed to water for five years, but also the method used in their fabrication was one that’s been rejected for bridges by engineers worldwide.

There were 288 of these bolts, and of the first 96 tightened, 30 broke.

There are thousands of other bolts needing testing, and most are embedded in concrete and can’t be removed. Apparently, the only way to “reinforce” them is to build a girdle of sorts to hold them tightly.

While engineers debate possible fixes, the tab increases. What started as a $2.6 billion project has ballooned to $6.4 billion. The first estimate for the “fix” is $10 million.

The state had scheduled a $5-million opening weekend celebration over Labor Day, to be paid for with bridge tolls! But now – who knows? State meetings last week resulted in no decisions.

Californians are losing patience and confidence. It’s been 24 years since the 6.9 magnitude earthquake caused a section of the upper deck of the eastern span to drop onto the lower roadway; one person died.

The bridge was closed for a short time and temporary repairs done.

Millions of commuters had to scramble. More than 280,000 people cross the bridge daily. Other area bridges picked up the slack, as did the rapid transit that runs under the bay while bus and ferry commuting suddenly became popular.

The old bridge reopened as politicians and engineers began the almost interminable debates about what to do: Retrofit, replace sections or build a new one?

The Bay Area having the mentality it does when spending taxpayer money, the final decision, after years of hassle and politically tainted rhetoric, was to build a new eastern span from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island.

The western span, from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco, is a traditional suspension bridge. It had suffered minor damage, was retrofitted, and remains in use.

The fiasco that is the new bridge continued like a bad melodrama.

It took years to decide to build a new bridge, but then the battle over design became the issue. Both Mayors Brown – Willie in San Francisco and Jerry in Oakland – politicians to the core, wanted the design to be iconic for their respective cities.

They finally selected a self-supporting, single tower suspension bridge.

It’s great looking, but simmering beneath the surface were the opinions of many engineers who say it isn’t a safe design for a seismically active location. San Francisco is an area subjected to wind, water tides and the vibrations and weight of millions of vehicle crossings a year.

It was described to me by Dr. Abolhassan Astaneh, a tenured professor of structural engineering at U.C. Berkeley. He’s an expert in design and failure analysis concerning the protection of buildings and bridges against terrorist attacks and other damage.

The old bridge was designed so that if one section was compromised in an earthquake, that part could fail, but the rest of the bridge would remain standing – which is exactly what happened.

But the new bridge is different. It has one tower and one cable, which runs from end to end, wrapping around, essentially connecting to itself.

That means, if anything causes a break in the cable – earthquake, severe accident or even terrorism – the whole bridge comes down because the supporting cable would be severed.

In fact, Astaneh told me last week there is no other such single-tower, self-supporting suspension bridge of this size in the world. He said the few others are smaller and have two towers.

Astaneh has the credentials to speak and urges that an outside panel of experts evaluate the bridge safety before it opens for use.

As he put it, “This bridge design is inherently unstable” and made worse because of the wind, water and seismic threats.

He said it’s meaningless to speak of “safe” or “unsafe.” The real issue, according to Dr. Astaneh, is level of risk, and he says this bridge inherently has a high risk.

Engineers really don’t know how to “fix” the problem, how a strong quake might damage it or even if it will survive better than the old bridge, which has been used since the quake that caused the damage 24 years ago!

I drive it weekly and feel safer than I ever will on the new one, no matter that state engineers and politicians say the new bridge will withstand the largest quake that might occur over the next 1,500 years!

If this weren’t so serious and expensive, it would be funny.

Funny it isn’t; serious it is, and expensive – and it isn’t over.

Tolls were $1, then $2. Now, $6.

Any guesses where it will end or whether anyone will be held responsible for the mistakes?


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