WEST SACRAMENTO -- Just three months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the Bay Bridge and pushed a glowing button that started a countdown for the Labor Day opening of the gleaming new eastern span.
"We're going to have a bicycle race, running, walking -- tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people," Brown said. "This has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of billions of dollars, but ... it's worth it because we're building for the future."
On Tuesday, however, Brown had a saltier way of describing the $6.4 billion bridge project after three dozen hefty high-strength steel bolts snapped like pretzels in early March and left everyone asking about the bridge's seismic safety.
"Don't know if it's a setback," the governor said. "I mean, look, s--- happens."
After seven weeks of scrambling to respond to the crisis, Caltrans is finally ready to go public with how it will fix the embarrassing problem.
On Wednesday morning, Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission will brief the Bay Area Toll Authority, co-managers of the replacement span. Along with getting cost estimates for the Big Fix, the authority will learn whether Caltrans will open the new bridge as scheduled on Sept. 3.
Caltrans and the bridge contractor, American Bridge-Fluor Joint Venture, may also release their internal probe into why the hefty anchor rods -- 3 inches in diameter and 17- to 24-feet long -- broke in the first place.
Caltrans' troubles started in early March just days after contractors tightened down 96 anchor rods on the pier east of the main span tower that tie the bridge deck and the columns to shear keys, which would help control swaying during an earthquake. A third of the bolts broke.
Engineers immediately blamed a well-known phenomenon that affects high-strength steel under heavy loads. It's caused by hydrogen atoms squeezing into the spaces between steel's crystalline molecules, thus weakening its strength.
But Caltrans hasn't yet said whether hydrogen embrittlement occurred during fabrication in Ohio or while the rods sat in their casings in water for five years on the bridge before contractors tightened them down.
Either way, engineers can't just replace the defective bolts. That's because the shear keys are sandwiched between the bridge deck and the tops of the reinforced concrete columns that support the bridge. The bolts are inaccessible from the bottom, and there is only 5 feet of room on the top.
Caltrans is expected to propose placing an exterior steel sheath or "saddle" around the shear keys that would take the loads the rods were supposed to bear. In anticipation of the fix, American Bridge-Fluor has already ordered the steel from a Mare Island fabricator.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday after attending a memorial service at the California Highway Patrol Academy, Brown said it was premature to "pull our hair out yet" and that he was "optimistic until proven otherwise" that the new addition to the nation's busiest bridge will work out.
"There are very professional engineers that are looking at this thing, and when they're ready to give us their report I think the public will be satisfied," he said.
Since the cracked bolts were discovered, Brown had refrained from commenting on a project that he had embraced as far back as when he was running for Oakland mayor in 1998 and had pushed for a spectacular design that could serve as a "civic symbol" for Oakland, a triumph of design and function.
At the time, Gov. Pete Wilson sought a more utilitarian replacement span, which was panned by Elihu Harris, Oakland's outgoing mayor, as "a freeway on stilts." Harris, Brown and other leaders saw the new Bay Bridge as a gateway, a chance to show off Oakland's port and hills.
Much of Brown's legacy as governor is tied to his aggressive pursuit of major infrastructure projects: high-speed rail, twin water tunnels in the Central Valley and a new Bay Bridge.
"People come and go, but the bridges and roads and the tracks, they stay for a long time," Brown said at the countdown event in February.
Still, some political analysts say a setback on the Bay Bridge wouldn't necessarily hurt Brown's big-project image.
"It would be better for the governor if things go smoothly, but he doesn't own the Bay Bridge like he owns high-speed rail and the peripheral tunnels," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Matsui Center at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "This is less his baby."