Deferred maintenance led to 880 guard rail failure

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- Caltrans was scrambling on Wednesday to explain how an East Bay overpass that passed inspection in February failed so badly Monday night when a stretch of guard rail and fencing fell onto the busy I-880 freeway.

The several tons of falling metal damaged cars, caused injuries and created a massive, hours-long backup. The mess also raised a bigger issue: Is this only the tip of a very expensive infrastructure iceberg?

It's time for Californians to consider how we're going to fund maintenance and replacements. A contractor, who wanted to remain anonymous because he was afraid Caltrans might get mad at him, told KTVU the three remaining guard rail fences on the I-880/23rd Avenue overpass are in danger of collapse.

Underneath San Lorenzo's Washington Avenue 880 overpass, a couple of large earthquake restraint cables seem to have come loose from their moorings, something the contractor told KTVU he reported a year ago. On Hayward's Tennyson 880 overpass, there are large corrosion stains as well as bent and patched up guard rail fences just like those that failed at the 23rd Avenue overpass.

These are all examples of so-called deferred maintenance, needed work delayed so that limited resources can be spent on even more critical needs. Whether or not the huge patches of corrosion or bent back guard rails and poles on the Tennyson overpass present any danger all has to be decided by Caltrans maintenance people. 

But no matter what they decide, it has a financial consequence one way or another and there are literally hundreds of thousands of these kinds of structures throughout the state. Statewide, this year alone Caltrans is looking at almost $6 billion in needed work delayed due to lack of funds.

Add another $3 billion for local streets, roads and transit just to keep those systems in good repair for the next year. That puts transportation planners and funders in a never ending balancing act.

"And that is the aging pains of our system versus the growing pains of a very economically vibrant economic region," said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "Clearly, we need to take care of the assets we have but we also need to expand the system in key ways to deal with the growing population."

It is fair to say we might have to expect more unpleasant surprises from an overly neglected road system, much of which is at or beyond its expected lifespan.

"These are instances that take this abstract concept and make it very concrete as it were," said Mr. Goodwin.

This Thursday  afternoon  starting at 4 p.m., the state and Bay Area's top transportation official invites the public to come to Caltrans headquarters on Grand Avenue in Oakland to discuss how the limited money should be spent to get the most bang for our buck.