Bay Bridge and its comedy of errors

As mayor of Oakland, Calif., Jerry Brown wanted an “icon” to replace the seismically challenged eastern span of the Bay Bridge and to highlight the “splendor” of the East Bay. “It’s unfortunate that pencil pushers, bureaucrats and political yahoos don’t understand quality and try to block quality to save a few bucks,” observed the Oracle of Oakland.

Influential civil engineer Tung-Yen Lin had a different take when a panel approved the signature design favored by local pols. Lin predicted it would become “a monument to stupidity.”

On Labor Day weekend, transportation officials will open the self-anchored suspension span, 24 years after a chunk of the old span collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake, six years after the signature span was supposed to be completed and more than $5 billion over budget.

Brown, now California’s governor, will be conspicuously absent, attending his wife’s family reunion in Michigan. I am sure his absence has nothing to do with the fact that the replacement span isn’t open for traffic yet — and already it needs a retrofit.

In March, 32 of 96 key galvanized steel rods cracked after they were tightened. They cannot be replaced because they’ve been encased in concrete for years. Engineers have come up with a plan to put steel “saddles” around the bad bolts at an expected cost of $23 million.

University of California, Berkeley structural engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl thinks the new span is not safe. The single-anchor design is flawed, he warned, and the brittle bolts cannot withstand an earthquake.

Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, has assured me that he wouldn’t approve opening the new span if he didn’t think it to be safe. God help me, I believe him. When the transit wonks talk about redundancies in the system that can accommodate the saddles doing the work of the cracked rods, I want to believe.

I make the leap of faith even though I know that Heminger didn’t know about the potential “brittle failure” until the rods snapped. Worse, his experts didn’t see the problem coming.

I want to believe because it’s too painful to think that after spending $6.4 billion and squandering 24 years, the Bay Area is going to get a shiny new toy that could fold like a cheap lawn chair during the next big temblor.

Will anyone pay for these costly, potentially fatal mistakes? “I don’t know the answer to that,” MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler told me. It hasn’t happened yet.

The bad design was decided 15 years ago and by committee. The bad bolt decisions were made a decade ago. So what can the bridge suits do — yank some retired bureaucrat out of mothballs and frog-march him into the drink?

If there is going to be any accountability, it has to come from the top. Good luck with that. When a reporter asked Brown about the bridge in May, Dao Gov answered, “S—- happens.”

Brown expects Californians to trust him to launch the construction of a 350-mile, $68 billion high-speed rail project. And he put a former head of Caltrans, Jeffrey Morales, in charge of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

He doesn’t have to rethink his infrastructure plans just because Caltrans demonstrated it can’t build a 2.2-mile bridge with no (one hopes) moving parts on budget, on time and with intact bolts. So trust Brown with high-speed rail, but don’t blame him if stuff happens.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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