Sometime in the next few weeks, the lead contractor for the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span will finally declare that the most complex public works project in California history is done – and state and local authorities will be solely responsible for a landmark beset by problems that trace back more than 16 years, to the day a handful of experts picked a design that bordered on the experimental.
They were elite architects, engineers, seismologists and academics – but few had any experience building or designing bridges. After a yearlong process, 19 of them gathered in an auditorium in Oakland to choose between two alternatives: a conventional span resembling more than 100 bridges worldwide, and a daring design that had never been tried on such a scale.
Both would cost roughly $1.5 billion, the group was told, although the attention-grabbing span was the more expensive of the two – perhaps as much as $173 million more for a bridge that would look like no other.
“At the time, it seemed a meaningless difference” and an amount “well worth spending,” said panel member Jeffrey Heller, a high-rise architect.
It turned out, however, that the difference was much more. The final sum may not be known for decades, until the problems that cascaded from the panel’s approval of a self-anchored suspension span in 1998 – broken rods, leaks in the steel structure, cracked welds, misaligned road decks – are fixed with toll payers’ dollars.
Many of the problems are linked to the bridge’s unusual complexity, according to a panel of engineers that looked at the project last summer for the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Their report concluded that California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) engineers had warned at the time that the bridge would be a technical nightmare. The design panel chose the configuration, the report said, because of “aesthetics” and “without a full appreciation” of its challenges.
All but one of the bridge experts on the selection panel opposed the final design, but they were outvoted by those with no bridge knowledge or experience.
The backers of that design say the problems were never insurmountable and blame the bridge’s troubles on Caltrans mismanagement.
Sixteen-plus years after the fateful vote, panel Chairman Joe Nicoletti admitted, “I don’t think any of us foresaw all the issues.”
One of the most costly bridges ever built began, ironically, with the state’s decision that retrofitting the Loma Prieta earthquake-damaged old eastern span of the Bay Bridge wasn’t worth the expense. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which sets transit priorities for the Bay Area, named 34 people to pick a new bridge that would be only slightly more costly.
They included the builders of some of the most impressive spans in the world, including Manabu Ito of Japan, who had designed what was then the longest bridge of its kind, and Christian Menn, a pioneering designer from Switzerland renowned for his work in Europe and the U.S.
Many of the members, however, were specialists in fields only tangentially related to the job at hand – seismic experts, building engineers and architects.
“We wanted a little bit broader perspective” than simply bridge designers and builders, said Larry Dahms, then executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The leader of the panel, Nicoletti, was a structural engineer whose specialty was seismic analysis. He had long advised Caltrans on how to improve the earthquake readiness of double-deck freeways and ramps, but he had never participated in designing or building a bridge.
The panel’s vice chairman, John Kriken, was an architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in San Francisco who had planned entire new cities, colleges and corporate campuses – but never a bridge. He earned his spot on the Bay Bridge panel because he chaired the powerful Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s design review board.
The transportation commission also had local engineering and architectural associations appoint some of the panelists, said Steve Heminger, the agency’s current executive director and then a staff member on the project.
Heminger recalled the panel’s first meeting in spring 1997. “It was just like a wedding,” he said – one where the in-laws didn’t like each other. “There was no prearranged seating, but all the architects were on one side and all the engineers were on the other.”
He looked over to Dahms and said, “We’re in trouble now.”
The bridge committee was not operating in a vacuum. Politicians, notably Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco and Jerry Brown of Oakland, wanted “a monument greater than the Golden Gate Bridge if they could get it,” Kriken recalled.
Eventually, the panel narrowed the choices to two – a more conventional span called a cable-stayed bridge, and the novel, self-anchored suspension design.
Unlike typical suspension bridges – such as the Golden Gate or the western span of the Bay Bridge – self-anchored spans do not have their main cable tied to massive anchorages. Instead, the cable is tied to smaller anchorages beneath the road deck.
Several short, self-anchored spans had been built over the years in Europe and the U.S., but the technology was considered all but obsolete by 1997.
The Bay Bridge’s self-anchored design would be different: Instead of being anchored at both ends of the span, its main cable would soar up into a figure-eight-style sling – looping over the tower, then under the road decks at one end of the bridge and back to twin anchorages under the deck on the eastern side.
Kriken embraced the self-anchored design for the new project. “It was distinctive and different,” he said.
The bridge panel was told the cost would be about the same as for a cable-stayed bridge – a span that does not rely on a main cable but instead smaller cables that fan outward from a central tower.
“You probably see a thousand of them on any visit to China,” Kriken said. “It is all they ever do. It wasn’t a new thing like the Golden Gate Bridge, that defied the normal practice limits.”
The panel’s most ardent opponent of the self-anchored design was one of the most influential and visionary structural engineers of the 20th century, Tung-Yen (T.Y.) Lin.
The Shanghai-born innovator infused flair and grace into functional designs, embracing arches and arcs. Lin pioneered the use of prestressed concrete for buildings and bridges in the U.S., an advance that incorporated tensioned cables to create seemingly floating elements. In the 1960s, Lin persuaded the builders of the San Mateo Bridge to use a sweeping curve instead of an erector-set-style design when they constructed the span’s high-rise section.
It was Lin’s vision of a single-tower, cable-stayed bridge for the new eastern span that won a Chronicle readers poll in May 1998.
Lin considered the self-anchored rival clunky and inefficient. He hated that it would require costly steel buttressing known as falsework during much of the construction; the unfinished structure could not stand on its own. Its all-but-untested design, he felt, would require many innovations that would prove expensive over time.
In the end, Lin said in an interview before his death in 2003, the result would not compare to the elegantly simple symmetry of a suspension bridge or the functionality of a cable-stayed.
Lin found an ally in Roumen Mladjov, a Bulgarian-born engineer who had built more than a dozen bridges over three decades before coming to California in 1990. He was on the selection panel representing the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, a professional organization with more than 1,500 members.
At first, Mladjov was proud to sit on the committee, seeing his service as a way of giving back to the Bay Area for having embraced him when he left his homeland.
Soon, however, he grew disillusioned.
“After five or six meetings listening to these guys,” he recalled, “I started to be ashamed to be an engineer for the first time in my life.”
Mladjov saw the self-anchored span as “extremely complicated, extremely difficult.” He warned that the 20,000 tons of steel needed to support the deck during construction would add $50 million to the cost of the bridge. He was wrong – the total turned out to be more than $250 million.
To his dismay, he saw that several people on the panel were dazzled by the special span.
Many of them were “good architects, but none had been involved with bridge design,” Mladjov said. When he warned about the hidden costs and significant challenges of the self-anchored design, he said, “they just ignored it. They didn’t want to talk about this at all.”
And some of the structural engineers on the panel, who Mladjov believed should have known better, went along.
“It was obvious it was wrong, but they just stayed either mute or said, ‘OK, it will be fine, it will work,’” Mladjov said.
By spring 1998, Mladjov and Lin had mustered a plurality in favor of the cable-stayed bridge. At a May 18 meeting, 10 panelists out of the 22 attending backed it, more than those who openly embraced the self-anchored design.
Then Ephraim Gordon Hirsch, a structural engineer on the panel, stepped in.
Hirsch was a design adviser to the state commission that screened bay development projects and had done engineering for college campus buildings. He had never worked on a bridge project.
Early in the process, Hirsch called the self-anchored span one of the “dumbest ever.”
He hadn’t seen many examples of such a bridge and thought there could be construction problems. “It was unknown to me yet how they would go about building this thing,” he said in a recent interview.
But by 1998, as the panel’s deliberations stretched into a second year, the unknown had become a positive for Hirsch. He embraced the self-anchored design as a daring statement.
“It was a challenge, but not an insurmountable challenge,” he said.
Besides, Hirsch had come to see the cable-stayed idea as staid and out of place. Of all the proposals put forward, the self-anchored “seemed to be the most elegant,” he said. “I considered it most in harmony with the existing vocabulary of bridges in the Bay Area.”
Just as it appeared the cable-stayed proponents had the upper hand, Hirsch suggested that the engineers and architects behind both schemes shift their span’s tower closer to Yerba Buena Island, creating an asymmetrical design. The original rules laid down by Caltrans called for a symmetrical, balanced bridge.
Hirsch’s idea was to create a curved slope for the cable on the eastern side of the suspension span, mimicking the gentle drape of the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge. “In terms of the visual aspect, it is much more exciting,” he said. “It is not so static.”
It had the added benefit, Hirsch said, of putting the tower’s foundation closer to the rock of Yerba Buena, providing a more solid base to withstand earthquakes and reduce excavation costs.
The teams working on the cable-stayed and self-anchored designs were both associated with the San Francisco engineering firm T.Y. Lin International, which had designed airports and shipping terminals in addition to bridges. Lin founded the firm but had sold it some years before and no longer worked there.
It was the self-anchored span’s engineering and design team leader, Herbert Rothman, who took Hirsch’s suggestion to heart. He and architect Donald MacDonald built a scale model of an asymmetrical self-anchored span, with the tower 100 feet closer to the island and the suspension bridge itself 250 feet longer than originally planned.
The cable-stayed team, however, concluded that such a shift would be difficult without making the tower much taller than those on the western span, to maintain the proper angle for the cables that fan out from it to support the deck.
“This would break the rules” set down by Caltrans, which didn’t want the tower to be taller than those on the western side of Yerba Buena, said the design architect on the cable-stayed team, Tom Piotrowski.
This was not an issue for the self-anchored design, because tower height did not have the same relationship to overall length.
Even without an asymmetrical version to offer, however, Piotrowski wasn’t worried. The cable-stayed design had just won the readers poll in The Chronicle. “The people were for my bridge,” he said.
“I remember when I was coming to the final presentation I was absolutely sure I was winning,” he said. He thought, “I’m going to the presentation with my bridge in my back pocket.”
The panel gathered in the Oakland auditorium of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on May 29, 1998, a gloomy Friday afternoon at the end of the Memorial Day holiday week.
Fifteen of the original 34 panelists failed to show up, including five who had been at the meeting just 11 days before. Nicoletti, the committee chairman, thinks some didn’t understand that there was no more time for talking. After a year of debate, Caltrans wanted a bridge.
“We had to come up with a decision, or the whole thing would have died on the vine,” he said.
After hearing from public speakers for more than three hours, the panel set to work. The first few members voiced support for the cable-stayed design. But the momentum shifted when Heller, the high-rise architect, who had always backed the traditional design, said he was jumping ship in favor of the self-anchored span.
Christopher Arnold, an architect on the panel, flipped as well.
At first, he said, “I was more in favor of a cable-stayed because the (self-anchored suspension bridge) was unknown. It was sort of a new approach, and I was probably a bit conservative.”
But Arnold changed his mind because he saw the concept as a daring and ambitious addition to the Bay Area bridge collection. The “novelty factor” was part of the appeal, he said, “and everyone was getting a bit tired by then.”
One key figure who wasn’t there that day was David Goodyear, the cable-stayed team’s passionate and articulate lead engineer. He had just undergone emergency surgery.
“His absence that day was absolutely pivotal,” said Peter Taylor, a bridge builder and designer from Canada. “The vote could easily have gone the other way” had Goodyear been there to make a final pitch. Goodyear, who is still with the T.Y. Lin firm, declined to comment.
But Piotrowski, the architect of the cable-stayed design, realized he had underestimated the tower shift’s impact on the panel. Not even Goodyear’s presence was going to diminish that. “We were pretty much doomed,” he said.
The final tally was 12-7 for the self-anchored bridge. Among the 12 was Nicoletti. He had decided he would vote with the majority but did not have strong feelings either way.
All but one of those who voted for the cable-stayed bridge supporters were experienced bridge engineers. They included Ito, who flew in from Japan for the meeting.
Some felt betrayed. Lin later said the decision had been the product of backroom, “smoke-filled” sessions.
“Between the two weeks from the old cable-stayed design to this suspension design, they made a beautiful model for the suspension and got the vote for it,” Lin said in an oral history interview in 2003. “But I suspect they made some kind of arrangement which may never be known. So c’est la vie!”
To Hirsch, however, it was all above board. “There was no smoke-filled room – the room was smoke-free,” he said.
Steve Thompson, a Mill Valley architect who was the only non-bridge engineer in Lin’s camp, didn’t see any way to reason with self-anchored span proponents.
“There was nothing I could do,” he said. “I did not go out and change people’s minds – they were not changeable. Have you tried to argue with a post before? All you can do is be independent and as articulate as possible.”
Others on the panel were surprised that the cost hadn’t been a bigger issue. “This was such an important decision to be made; it was going to cost a lot of money,” Taylor said. “But that issue wasn’t really properly addressed by the committee.”
Taylor had voiced concerns about cost estimates in earlier meetings, but in the end he voted for the one-of-a-kind span. He was the only bridge expert on the panel to do so.
Taylor got caught up in the fervor for the unique bridge, yet he always expected that the concept would eventually have to be abandoned because of its cost. “But that never happened.”
Heminger and other Metropolitan Transportation Commission staffers were shocked at the decision. “The cable-stayed was the overwhelming favorite,” he said, “all the way through the process.”
They weren’t the only ones who were surprised. Caltrans officials were “absolutely horrified,” Taylor recalled. “I was watching their faces when the votes were counted. The vote clearly did not go the way they anticipated.”
Caltrans primarily maintains the state’s highway system; it doesn’t build many bridges. Now, it was not only going to have to build a big bridge, but one with design elements that had never been used anywhere in the world.
“There’s over a dozen first things on this bridge,” Marwan Nader, the chief engineer on the project for T.Y. Lin International, said in a recent video history of the project done for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “There was nothing that we could go back to – a book or a previous bridge – and say, ‘That’s what we did over there, that’s what we do.’”
Over the years, as challenges mounted and costs soared, Caltrans made accommodations whose effects linger to this day.
A batch of galvanized rods needed for extra seismic strength on the unusual bridge cracked, adding more than $45 million in costs. A Chinese crane maker won the money-saving contract to make pieces of the bridge, but turned out shoddy welds and produced ill-fitting road decks at risk of premature cracking.
Connecting the self-anchored suspension span to the skyway portion of the bridge turned out to be what Heminger called “the fabrication challenge of a lifetime,” slowed down the project by a year and added $145 million to the bill.
Lightweight steel guardrails were used instead of the usual concrete on the suspension span; holes, drilled in the deck so the barriers can be attached to the bridge, leak when it rains. Rods that hold down the tower became steeped in rainwater and could be at risk of corroding.
The engineering panel that reviewed the project last summer for the state Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the self-anchored span “was not the (Caltrans) engineers’ first choice and that, in fact, it was opposed by many on technical grounds.”
The design “was chosen on the basis of aesthetics and broader community input without a full appreciation of the complexity of the undertaking and the potential for problems and cost overruns,” the report said.
In response, Caltrans said, “It is hard to argue with a process established to allow local decision making for the selection of the bridge to build.”
Hirsch insists the design and the process were fine – it was Caltrans’ execution that was flawed.
“All the troubles that this design has encountered are attributable to Engineering 1A screwups, not to the fact that it is a self-anchored suspension bridge,” Hirsch said. “My bottom line is, I think the design is excellent. We made the right choice.”
The bridge’s main contractor, the joint venture American Bridge/Fluor, has defended its workmanship through all the problems. But with the contractor about to wrap up its work on the span, Caltrans has enlisted a panel of experts to assess where the bridge might require additional maintenance – costs that will come from a pool of several hundred million dollars raised from drivers’ bridge tolls.
Once American Bridge/Fluor figures out what to do about the tower rods, it will turn over bridge maintenance to Caltrans’ Bay Area office. A panel composed of the leaders of Caltrans and the local and state transportation commissions will remain in place to resolve any questions about the rods and bolts as well as oversee the demolition of the old eastern span.
Taylor, the Canadian bridge builder who voted for the span, said California has “certainly constructed an exceptional bridge” – but at a cost far higher than originally envisioned.
“People in the bridge community see this as a tremendous piece of work, but they sort of roll their eyes at the cost,” he said.
Arnold, one of the architects who changed his mind to vote for the self-anchored span, is happy the panel gave the go-ahead to “a really signature bridge – you don’t get that if you are worried about costs.”
As far as T.Y. Lin International chief engineer Nader is concerned, the people of the Bay Area wanted something different, “and by God, they got it.”
“It’s certainly going to be for the ages, for people to see it on postcards,” he said in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s video on the project. “Was it painful? Yes it was. Was it very expensive? Yes it was.
“Is it worth it?“ he asked.“Time will tell.
“But a few years from now, people will feel it was certainly worth it.”