OAKLAND — A state-sanctioned oversight panel on Thursday announced that officials would press ahead with plans to open the troubled eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to traffic around Labor Day weekend.
The single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge -- which stretches from Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the bay to Oakland -- initially was scheduled for a celebratory unveiling Labor Day weekend. But the project, in the planning since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the original eastern stretch, has been fraught with problems.
At $6.3 billion, it is far over budget. And in March, officials announced that about one-third of the 96 massive bolts used to attach a pair of seismic safety devices to the bridge had broken.
Last month, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee opted to delay the opening until December so that a retrofit -- involving the use of a steel saddle -- could be put in place.
But on Thursday the panel members unanimously approved a temporary fix expected to get the span ready for traffic within weeks. After hearing from independent experts, including the California division chief of the Federal Highway Administration, they determined that motorists would be safer driving on the new span with a temporary fix in the event of a major earthquake than they would be on the old bridge.
"There is risk to the public, there is risk to all of us, keeping people on the old bridge," California Department of Transportation principal engineer Brian Maroney told the committee. "My advice to all the decision-makers is get people on the new safe bridge."
After a complete bridge closure beginning Wednesday, Aug. 28, the new section of the bridge is set to open at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3.
An investigation into the bolt defect -- a phenomenon known as hydrogen embrittlement -- placed the blame on Caltrans, bridge designer T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol Joint Venture and builder American Bridge/Fluor.
After the committee voted in July to keep traffic off the span until the steel saddle was in place, officials nevertheless moved to have temporary steel shims manufactured that could make the bridge safe enough to stick to the Labor Day plan.
It paid off.
Assessments of those shims -- which will allow for movement and absorb vertical and horizontal forces in the event of a major earthquake -- led Vince Mammano of the Federal Highway Administration on Thursday to announce that "we see no reason to delay the opening of the bridge to traffic."