Updated at: 08/15/2013 8:05 PM
By TERENCE CHEA
(AP) OAKLAND, Calif. - Despite broken earthquake-safety bolts that threatened months of delays, California transportation officials approved a plan Thursday to open the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge around the Labor Day weekend as originally planned.
The Toll Bridge Oversight Committee voted unanimously at a public meeting to approve a temporary fix for the bolts and open the span Sept. 3 instead of as late as December.
The decision came days after federal transportation officials signed off on the temporary fix.
The plan calls for the entire bridge to be closed Aug. 28 and to reopen Sept. 3 using the sweeping new $6.4 billion span instead of the existing, decades-old span that has remained in use during construction.
"That we can open the bridge sooner than in December is a very welcomed development," Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and oversight committee chairman, said moments before Thursday’s vote.
Officials made the decision to close the bridge on Labor Day weekend because they believe traffic would be lighter at that time than during other weekends.
"We had a lot of conflicts no matter where else we landed," Heminger said about the timing.
Gov. Jerry Brown initially played down worries about the broken bolts but later expressed concerns, saying the span was "not going to open unless it’s ready." On Thursday, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor accepted the committee’s decision.
Democratic state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who has been critical about delays, cost overruns and construction to repair the bridge, said in a statement that the old eastern span has not been seismically safe since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
The new span "is 10 years late, and $5 billion over budget," said DeSaulnier, chairman of the state Senate transportation committee. "The commuters are the ones who have paid for this project as it has skyrocketed over budget, and they have been left vulnerable each day spent on the old span."
In a letter made public Tuesday, Vincent Mammano of the Federal Highway Administration told the bridge committee that the agency was impressed with the level of expertise used to come up with the temporary fix and saw no reason to delay opening the bridge to traffic before long-term repairs are finished.
The cracked bolts, which secure earthquake shock absorbers to the deck of the bridge, were discovered in March. Officials determined it would take until December or longer to fix the problem, but days later engineers came up with the temporary solution.
The short-term fix involves installing steel plates in the area of the broken bolts to help prevent movement during an earthquake. The measures would remain in place while workers install a permanent steel saddle to replace the clinching function of the failed bolts.
The temporary plates could most likely be installed in a single day, MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said. He added that the fix would still be safer than the current eastern span.
"The existing bridge is the one folks ought to be worried about," said Heminger, the MTC executive director. "That’s why we feel the imperative to move people onto the new bridge so they can be safe as they travel."
State transportation secretary Brian Kelly said the oversight committee kept its focus on public safety throughout its investigation, and "Bay Area residents will soon enjoy the enhanced public safety this project has promised."
But Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said opening before the long-term repairs are finished would be unsafe. He was surprised at the federal decision to allow it.
Astaneh-Asl has said the short-term fix did not make up for the loss of a critical device called a shear key designed to resist lateral earthquake motion.
The bridge project was undertaken because the existing eastern span, built in the 1930s, was no longer considered seismically safe.
Even before the bolts cracked, the project had experienced years of cost overruns and construction and design delays.
"After the countless headaches this project has caused, we need to identify what went wrong and how we can prevent similar frustrations on future mega-projects," DeSaulnier said.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Laura Olson in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)