Bay Bridge Report: Caltrans Worked to Keep Construction Flaws Quiet

By Juliet Williams Associated Press

The new eastern span of the  Bay Bridge shortly before it opened last September. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge shortly before it opened last September. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO — Senior officials who oversaw construction of the $6.5 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge repeatedly and deliberately brushed off criticism about construction problems and sought to keep information secret as part of an “institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project,” a state Senate investigative report released Thursday found.

The 64-page report, commissioned by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing in the wake of numerous media reports about construction flaws, cost overruns and delays, found a pattern of mismanagement among Caltrans officials and systemic failures in the way problems were reported and tracked.

However, none of the dozens of people interviewed has said the bridge is unsafe, the report said. (Report embedded below: “San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future.”)

“Even the most aggrieved critics involved in the construction say they have confidence in the integrity of the structure,” the report said, though many believe “the officially estimated 150-year lifespan is exaggerated.”

“It is the finding of this investigation that those involved in overseeing the project have attempted to keep many serious allegations quiet, rather than dealing with them in an open, businesslike manner,” the report said.

Most of the serious criticisms of the project were revealed by the news media rather than by government agencies.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty called the report flawed and said it failed to incorporate many of the corrections his agency pointed out after a draft was discussed at a hearing in January. (Embedded below: Official Caltrans response to Bay Bridge report.

“This report rehashes issues that have been investigated, reviewed and in many cases resolved,” Dougherty said in a written statement. “Any concerns about welds, anchor rods, tendons, leaks, and foundation testing have been investigated, in many cases by outside experts, and resolved.”

The report came the same day a separate review by an independent panel of engineers found the engineering and design work met safety standards.

Dougherty acknowledged that the process was too secretive, partly because the legislation that created the toll bridge oversight committee for the bridge exempted it from California’s open meetings law.

In retrospect, that was a mistake, Dougherty said in an interview.

The new state Senate report says there was an unspoken directive not to document problems in writing. Dougherty said that while he was not present for many of the verbal conversations referenced in the report, in his 24 years at the agency, “I have never run into this non-documentation.”

“I would hope that I’d be able to say that it’s not the culture of the agency,” he said, adding that officials have specific requirements about daily reports and how to document them. “There should not be any direction not to document any issues.”

The report also affirms reporting by the Sacramento Bee that Caltrans knowingly accepted potentially hazardous work by a Chinese firm that welded most of the new roadway and tower.

Numerous inspectors, both private contractors and Caltrans employees, said they raised red flags about cracked welds on deck panels. A mandatory state audit found the Shanghai company was inexperienced and its employees were not well trained.

One contractor assigned to inspect the panels said he was admonished by senior Caltrans officials for being “too rigorous.” His firm’s contract was not renewed when it expired in 2008. The report concluded it was one of numerous instances in which people and companies were punished for pointing out problems.

The report, which will be discussed at a hearing next Tuesday of the Transportation and Housing Committee, also found:

  • Objections that would further delay the project were rejected.
  • The state has spent $13 million on a database system designed to track bridge welding and address an outdated record-keeping system, but the system is still not available after seven years.
  • Some engineers were told to send critical emails without a subject line so they would be harder to retrieve in a public records request.

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  • Austin Quirk

    I just don’t understand. This agency is responsible for building infrastructure that just about every person who lives in or visits California relies on. It’s in the interest of every single person (including the families of CalTrans workers) to have safety come first. If they can’t get it done, the State government needs to clean-house. Does the Federal Dept of Transportation have the authority to come-in and provide oversight? We keep hearing more and more bad news about CalTrans, and they just keep going business as usual. What’s the hold-up?

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