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Bridge welds pass U.S. muster

May 5, 2005 Reposted from the Sacramento Bee
By Herbert A. Sample

Workers had alleged flaws inside pilings for the bay project.

OAKLAND - Federal officials announced Wednesday that tests on welds inside unfinished support columns of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge found the work met or exceeded specifications.

The conclusions provided a rare bit of cheer for a construction project that has been beset by financing, political and other troubles.

"The Federal Highway Administration statement today affirming safe construction of the Bay Bridge is good news for motorists," said Will Kempton, director of the state Department of Transportation. "Through ongoing cooperation with federal authorities, Caltrans will continue enforcing its rigorous protocols through the completion of this project."

The welding controversy flared almost a month ago when the Oakland Tribune reported that the FBI was examining the allegations of more than a dozen welders who contended that substandard welds were made but not corrected inside several support pilings for the bridge's eastern span.

Their assertions halted work on a portion of the 1.5-mile-long skyway for nearly a month, the delay costing an estimated $400,000 a day. Caltrans and the project's major contractors vehemently denied the allegations.

The charges also attracted the attention of the Federal Highway Administration, which hired teams of independent inspectors to assess the quality of welding on the project.

Most of the welds called into question were already encased inside nearly 160 concrete and steel pilings, under several feet of water. But welds in four uncompleted support columns were visually inspected, and a few portions of the structures were cut away and tested using various scientific techniques.

The teams said the inspections and tests identified no problems.

"There was no evidence of gross flaws," states the report from Mayes Testing Engineers Inc. "In fact, there was no evidence of any unacceptable flaws in any of the samples tested."

Another expert, Pennsylvania civil engineering professor John Fisher, reached similar conclusions. The inspections and testing "demonstrated that the welds showed excellent workmanship and no evidence of major or unacceptable discontinuities," he wrote.

The welders could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the FBI said only that its investigation continues. A Caltrans spokeswoman said construction of the four unfinished pilings could resume soon.

The welding controversy is the latest of the project's woes. Caltrans has come under withering criticism for its management practices, the project is behind schedule, its design is still in question, and its original $2.6 billion cost estimate has ballooned by at least $3.6 billion.

One proposal to resolve the bridge's finances, which gained state Senate committee approval Tuesday, would place a $7.7 billion bond measure on the November 2006 ballot. It would finance the remainder of the bridge as well as other transportation and public works projects across the state. Tolls on all Bay Area bridges except the Golden Gate also would rise by $1 to $4 per car.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the proposal. And he remains convinced that the design of the 2,100-foot suspension portion of the bridge that connects with Yerba Buena Island, which has not begun construction, should be junked in favor of extending the skyway to the island. Area lawmakers, however, favor the current design.

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