By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The cost of repairs and unfinished work on the $6.4 billion Bay Bridge eastern span is likely to exhaust what is left in the project’s contingency fund for overruns, a Caltrans official warned Thursday.
“We’re trending in the wrong direction,” Rich Foley, risk manager for the Caltrans toll bridge program, told the three-person committee that oversees the bridge project. “We are moving toward a cost overrun.”
The bridge contingency fund — money collected from toll payers’ wallets — totaled $900 million when it was created in 2005. At the time, bridge officials portrayed it as far more than they were likely to need.
Now, however, the fund is down to $90 million, and “a bunch of” pending payments for finishing work on the new bridge and demolishing the old span will probably “eat up” that money and more, Foley said. He pegged the likelihood of exhausting the fund at 80 percent.
The money could be replenished from reserve funds intended to pay for other Bay Area bridge projects, but only with the approval of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a 21-member panel made up mostly of local elected officials. If that happens, the final cost of the eastern span will top $6.4 billion.
Steve Heminger, executive director of the commission, said there’s enough money in the other bridge reserves to ward off the need for a toll increase.
”We have adequate reserves to deal with what we are likely to face, even if there is an overrun on the budget,” he said. “Our first line of defense is to avoid one to begin with.”
The bridge panel — made up of Heminger and the heads of Caltrans and the state Transportation Commission — got the sobering report at a meeting in Oakland after approving more than $4 million to pay for repainting the bridge, fixing misaligned anchor rods that hold down the cable on the suspension span, and repairing movable maintenance platforms under the road decks.
Steel grit that embedded in the paint when grinding was being done during construction is rusting, which had already required an extra $2.5 million in work before the committee approved the new money Thursday. The misaligned steel rods have created the risk of that steel cable strands will rub against metal on the bridge, potentially weakening the cable.
The maintenance platforms run on rails beneath the bridge that have developed gaps, causing the scaffolds to stall.
Last month, the panel approved $3 million to compensate the bridge’s main builder, the joint venture American Bridge/Fluor, to work on the project through the end of the year. The bridge opened last September, but work has continued to prepare the span for being handed over to local authorities.
Foley told the panel that in the second quarter of this year alone, bridge costs were $20 million over budget. One big issue down the line, he said, is the expense of dismantling the old span — a cost that recently ballooned $17 million, to more than $90 million, because of added environmental protections.
”There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Foley said. “A lot of people are nervous about it, myself included.”
Heminger said one way to save money would be to leave the old span’s piers in place rather than demolishing them. “If we can leave some foundations in the bay, we don’t have to pay to take them out,” he said.
The panel did receive some good news regarding more than 2,000 rods and bolts on the span, whose strength was called into question when 32 galvanized rods used to hold down seismic-stability structures snapped in 2013.
Tests on the remaining fasteners — a $20 million effort that has contributed to the bridge overruns — led engineers to conclude the bolts and rods are tensioned just below the level at which they would be at high risk of failure, said chief bridge engineer Brian Maroney.
If the fasteners had to be replaced, it could cost toll payers tens of millions of dollars.
Heminger said the narrow safety margin “makes me, as a layman, nervous.”
Maroney, however, said the tests have given engineers “confidence that we know what the heck is going on.”
The rods that failed last year were from a batch that was markedly more vulnerable than the vast majority of the bridge’s fasteners, said Marwan Nader, chief design engineer for the project. He also noted that some of the rods and bolts have been covered with grease-filled caps designed to keep out potentially corrosive water.
Heminger, however, said some of the caps “are not working perfectly — they are leaking.”
Nader said the caps can be fixed, and that other layers of protection can be added so that “there’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and you’re still not going to get failure.”