Local transportation officials are demanding that Caltrans reveal any problems with the new Bay Bridge eastern span after the state agency failed to tell them for nearly two months that potentially corrosive rainwater was leaking into the steel superstructure.
"An oversight committee can't oversee if it is not provided with information from the project staff," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "I have made that clear in no uncertain terms."
In his update on the bridge project last week, which was not publicized, Heminger revealed that Caltrans didn't tell commission staffers of the leak problem - which carries the risk of corrosion over the long term - until late January, though the state knew about it in early December.
"I'm very troubled by it," Heminger said of the delay. "It is disturbing, and it's not the first time it happened."
He added, "We have made a formal request to the department to provide us with an itemized list of every issue like this, so we know what we're getting into."
Caltrans' chief deputy director, Richard Land, said he and other officials at the agency learned about the problem the same time Heminger did, when The Chronicle started asking about it in late January.
Until then, Land said, "it was just another issue we were working on addressing."
"I don't think there is a problem with notification," Land said. "We thought it was another issue that was manageable."
The Chronicle first reported Feb. 9 that leaks were allowing rainwater into the hollow steel structure that supports the road deck on the bridge's suspension section. Caltrans said Tuesday it was still assessing the problem and compiling a response to Heminger's demand for an accounting.
The 18-member transportation commission, made up mostly of local elected officials, has a major say in deciding which local road and transit projects receive federal and state grant money. It doubles as the Bay Area Toll Authority, which administers toll money from all the state-run bridges in the Bay Area, including the Bay Bridge.
Heminger noted that the eastern span project is entering a critical phase, as basic construction is complete. Once work is done on the bridge, probably in the summer, state funding will dry up and bridge toll payers will cover the maintenance bill for the life of the span.
It's essential, said Heminger, that Caltrans be open with the commission "so we can handle the bridge as it's turned over" without getting "a bunch of maintenance issues that are going to bite us in the bottom later on."
In a Jan. 31 e-mail to Caltrans, Heminger said the leaks and other bridge problems - including brittle bolts and water seepage onto steel that supports the bike path - is part of a pattern that "smacks of utter carelessness."
He gave Caltrans until March 4 to do a full accounting of "construction defects, flaws or irregularities that have the potential" to increase maintenance costs.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, one of the city's representatives on the transportation commission, professed amazement that Caltrans hadn't disclosed the leaks.
"How does that happen?" Campos asked Heminger. "That points to the fact that we still haven't learned lessons about better communication. It's kind of scary."
Caltrans says it is still unsure where the rainwater is leaking into the steel superstructure. Speculation has centered on caulking at the base of the suspension span's steel guardrails.
Officials have also suggested holes made for electrical conduits may be allowing water to seep in, but Land said he now doubts the conduits are to blame.
Andrew Fremier, the transportation commission's deputy director, said he toured the span after heavy rains the weekend of Feb. 8-9 and found areas of pooled water near the bolts that secure the guardrails to the steel superstructure.
In addition, he said, dozens of connection points between the guardrails, maintenance panels and the deck are not watertight, "a problem we need to be resolved."
Fremier said water is even entering in the chambers where the cables are anchored. The chambers are dehumidified to guard against corrosion attacking the exposed cables.
Land said that "my understanding is that the dehumidification system is taking care" of the dampness.
He said about 35 percent of the 2,600 brackets on the suspension span have shown some sign of moisture. "In some locations, it is an occasional drip," he said. "Some are moist, but there is no location where it streaming in."
Fremier said he did not see any corrosion inside the steel superstructure on his walking tour, although a Chronicle photographer took pictures of what one expert identified as signs of corrosion near standing water. Instead, Fremier said he saw "some areas of primer that need to be patched."
The caulk at the sides and the base of the guardrails, he said, "will probably always be a problem" and require periodic replacement.
"I don't want to minimize the fact that this needs to be fixed," Fremier said.
Brian Maroney, the chief engineer on the bridge project, said Caltrans will deal with all the bridge's leak issues.
"We are not done yet with the construction - we are not done buttoning up," Maroney said. "We still have some work to do to finish up."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle