OAKLAND -- Federal and independent experts will officially weigh in by mid-August on whether installing temporary steel shims on the new Bay Bridge could allow the state to open the crossing before contractors finish repairs to broken bolts.
The outside opinions are considered key to reversing the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee's decision to postpone for months the planned Sept. 3 opening.
Either way, the preferred Labor Day opening is a long shot,
although no one is suggesting an alternative date just yet. In order for contractors to physically tie Interstate 80 to the new span, the existing bridge must be shut down for three to four days.
Closing one of the busiest bridges in the nation requires advance notice to commuters, truckers and everyone else who relies on the crossing. Detours, signage and traffic control must be provided.
Contractors also need time to mobilize crews and equipment, but, on the other hand, pushing the schedule into the winter months could lead to weather-related delays.
Just how much notice is "being discussed," said bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon. "Once the oversight committee has received the federal and peer review reports on the shims, they will distill the information and decide what steps, if any, to take."
The committee requested the external reviews after the three-member independent Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel in early July publicly called the delay in opening the new bridge a serious public safety risk.
The new span, they said, is exponentially safer than the old 1936 bridge, which engineers say is highly likely to collapse in the next big earthquake.
The panelists proposed installing steel shims into rocker bearing assemblies -- restricting their normal back-and-forth movement -- as an interim way to bolster the bridge's seismic safety if an earthquake strikes before the bolt retrofit is finished.
Engineers had already planned to install the temporary metal blocks to protect the bearings from damage during a temblor but had not proposed them as a means to open the bridge to traffic.
A Benicia company is manufacturing the shims and will deliver them in August, but they will not be installed before the federal and peer review reports have been submitted, Gordon said.
In the meantime, the bolt retrofit work continues.
Vallejo and Alabama fabricators are making the steel saddle and cable assembly that will be clamped onto seismic stabilizers -- called shear keys -- where 32 out of 96 very large embedded steel anchor rods snapped in March.
Located on the large pier east of the main span tower, the shear keys are next to the bearings where engineers intend to insert the shims.
Elsewhere on the $6.4 billion bridge, the contractor has completed paving the travel deck for the self-anchored suspension portion of the new 2-mile span. The last of the light poles are going up, lane striping on the Yerba Buena Island end could start as early as next week, and the first changeable message sign is scheduled for installation, Gordon said.
In all the preparations, one aspect of the bridge opening -- the $5 million opening celebration once planned for the three-day holiday weekend -- has quietly been dropped. Gone are the plans for bike and foot races, fireworks and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on the new span before it opens to traffic.
In its place will likely be a modest ribbon-cutting ceremony although that won't be discussed until an opening date has been set, said Metropolitan Transportation Commission Chairwoman and Orinda Mayor Amy Worth.
"We will probably have something appropriate to mark the opening," Worth said. "But we want to shift traffic onto the new and safer bridge as quickly as possible, and there won't be enough advance notice to do the necessary planning and private fundraising for a large public event."