OAKLAND -- Broken bolts. Bad welds. FBI probes. Rusted tendons. Missing test data. A rogue inspector.
With one scary headline after another since construction on the new Bay Bridge started in 2002, it's no wonder people are asking whether the replacement is really going to be safer than the old 1936 span motorists drive every day.
"I will never drive on that (new) bridge," said one frightened reader who called this newspaper. "I'll drive around and use the Richmond and Golden Gate bridges and pay two tolls."
That's not going to be necessary, experts say.
Dozens of internationally renowned bridge engineers and other experts have investigated every one of the high-profile construction setbacks and declared them either untrue, resolved or, in the case of the snapped bolts, fixable.
"Caltrans is going way overboard to make sure everything is inspected and done in the best possible way," Frieder Seible, Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel chairman, reassured Bay Area officials last week.
Seible and his two colleagues are so confident in the span's safety that they pleaded with the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee to reverse last week's decision to postpone the Sept. 3 opening until after contractors repair the broken rods.
Still, the long list of construction issues is disquieting; should we be worried?
No, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, a vocal critic who is pushing for independent reviews of the bridge's construction troubles.
"Me, personally, having sat through many meetings and heard from many engineers for which I have varying levels of confidence, I am convinced the old bridge is unsafe," DeSaulnier said. "I want to be on the new bridge as soon as practicable."
Here's a rundown of the construction setbacks:
In 2005, the Oakland Tribune published accounts of more than a dozen workers who said the skyway contractor forced them to conceal shoddy welds to speed up construction.
They said as many as a third of the 5,280 welds in the piers were faulty, spurring an FBI investigation.
The Federal Highway Administration hired outside experts who examined the alleged bad welds and found no evidence of defects. The FBI dropped the case.
But the eight-month investigation cost almost $5 million in construction delays, testing and replacing the steel slabs carved out for inspection.
A Caltrans inspector in 2006 discovered rust-colored water seeping into ducts that hold 21,000 tons of tightened steel tendons that strengthen the 1.2 mile concrete skyway deck.
Caps over air vents had broken -- probably when workers drove over them -- before contractors finished filling the ducts with grout. Moisture would corrode the steel and eventually render it useless.
Investigators found notable corrosion in less than 2 percent of the tendons examined and lab tests found no serious degradation. And since the bridge contained 10 percent more steel than required to meet traffic and seismic standards, they concluded in 2007 -- and again in May after a Sacramento Bee report -- that no repairs were necessary.
Weld cracks in China
At Zhenhua Port Machinery in Shanghai, where the decks for the self-anchored suspension span were being fabricated, Caltrans inspectors in 2008 found cracks in small welds used to align and hold together two metal layers.
Based on an investigation, the fabricator changed its welding process and Caltrans ordered the bad welds repaired.
The fix delayed arrival of the first deck sections in the Bay Area by seven months, but it didn't hold up the overall bridge schedule.
The bridge team subsequently accelerated the construction schedule and offered incentives to the contractor of up to $20 million if it delivered the steel decks early.
Sacramento Bee stories in 2011 and 2012 about a Caltrans inspector who faked test data and allegations of Bay Bridge concrete testing method lapses triggered a multiyear probe into whether the span's marine foundation concrete is sound.
Caltrans and the California State Auditor found no evidence that the rogue inspector falsified test results from the Bay Bridge although he was later fired for doing so on other projects.
The Peer Review Panel and the Federal Highway Administration reviewed the foundation concrete data and declared the structure safe.
At the request of the Senate Transportation Committee, the Legislative Analyst's Office is also reviewing the foundation testing. The results are pending.
Main tower welds
The self-anchored suspension span's 525-foot main tower is actually four towers welded together.
Caltrans' inspectors in 2012 found flaws in the 30-foot-high, 4-inch-thick welds at the tower's base. They align the segments during an earthquake but are not needed to either support the tower or traffic.
A Sacramento Bee story earlier this year quoted experts who questioned the welding method.
Some of the weld imperfections were unacceptable while others were aesthetic, but overall, they represent a small percentage of the connections, Caltrans principal bridge engineer Brian Maroney said.
In consultation with the Peer Review Panel, Federal Highway Administration and industry experts, Caltrans ordered some welds torn out and replaced. Repairs began 10 months ago and continue.
By far, the most costly construction threat to the new span in time and dollars is the catastrophic failure four months ago of 32 out of 96 high-strength steel anchor rods in seismic stabilizers on the large pier east of the main tower.
Embedded inside shear keys sandwiched between the top of the columns and the bottom of the bridge deck, the rods are too large to remove.
The bolts succumbed to a well-known phenomenon where hydrogen atoms invade high-strength steel under heavy strain, and leave it brittle and vulnerable to cracking.
However, the bridge team and the Peer Review Panel say the retrofit -- an external saddle and cable assembly -- will replace the loads the original bolts were intended to carry.
Fabrication of the estimated $15 million to $20 million repair is under way and the contractor estimates it will complete the work by Dec. 10.
The three agencies overseeing the new Bay Bridge construction -- Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority -- have for years relied on an independent peer review panel to investigate construction problems.
Membership has varied over the years, but the current roster includes three members of the National Academy of Engineering, the profession's highest honor.
Frieder Seible, chairman: The 61-year-old structural engineer retired in April as dean of the UC San Diego school of engineering, where he founded a laboratory that tested most of the concrete column designs that Caltrans uses today.
He has advised California on seismic safety since 1990. In April, Seible took a post as the dean of engineering at Monash, a public university in Melbourne, Australia.
I.M. Idriss: A UC Davis geotechnical engineering professor emeritus, 77-year-old Idriss pioneered many of the strategies that public infrastructure builders use to compensate for the way earthquake vibrations move through rocks and soils.
He was appointed to the California Seismic Advisory Board in 1990 and has been advising Caltrans ever since. Today, Idriss is a private geotechnical consultant with clients all over the world.
John Fisher: The 82-year-old civil engineering professor emeritus from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., joined the panel in 2008.
His research formed the basis of many of the industry's steel fatigue prevention failure provisions used today. He served on the national commission that investigated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York in 2001.
Sources: Toll Bridge Program, staff research