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Bay Bridge Official: 'Fighting Chance' For 2013 Opening

SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) -- The new $6.3 billion eastern portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge still "has a fighting chance" to open this year, despite concerns over structural issues, officials overseeing its construction said Tuesday.

Citing myriad problems that have dogged the span's construction, state lawmakers grilled the officials overseeing the project about the decision to use a specific type of seismic safety rods, 32 of which broke after being tightened in March.

Now, its Labor Day opening date is in jeopardy after the failure of the long, seismic safety rods that attach the bridge deck to earthquake shock absorbers called "shear keys."

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, called for the hearing before the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee after voicing concerns about the California Department of Transportation's decision to use the type of rods that failed.

DeSaulnier said he voted to approve the bridge's design in the 1990s when he was a Contra Costa County supervisor, but he never thought the span would take as long and be as expensive as it turned out to be.

"I don't know if I'd vote for this design again if I had the benefit of hindsight," DeSaulnier said.

The new bridge was designed to replace the existing eastern portion, part of which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After years of delays and cost overruns, the bridge has become the largest public works project in state history, the committee said.

But officials overseeing the repairs and tests on hundreds of existing bolts said, once it's open, it will be a much safer option than the current bridge being used daily by commuters.

"It has taken too long. But I do believe when we talk about the safety of the new bridge, we have to keep the safety of the old bridge in mind, Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said. "It is a comparison. Which one is safer? We need to get people on the safer one as soon as possible?"

Bridge officials say testing of the broken rods with others manufactured in a different batch in 2010 indicate the rods in question broke because of a bad batch of steel that at some point was infected by hydrogen, which made it brittle and prone to breaking. The rods that failed were made in 2008.

Further testing of the 2010 rods is needed before they can determine if they need to be replaced immediately or just monitored after the bridge is opened to traffic.

If immediate replacement is needed, the bridge's scheduled Labor Day opening would likely be delayed.

Officials are trying to restore public confidence in the bridge's safety, and applauded the Federal Highway Administration's decision to conduct an independent review of Caltrans' work identifying the cause of the broken rods and the agency's chosen repair.

If crews can verify the safety of the remaining rods, and complete the $20 million repair to the broken ones, officials said there would still be a chance for a Labor Day opening.

However, no one involved in the bridge's construction feels that a celebration should occur for a project well over budget.

"We need to retrofit the east pier (where the rods broke), and may need to retrofit the celebration too," Heminger said.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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