New Bay Bridge, on the right (photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
Now that the retooled San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is open, a decade late and billions over budget, the state Senate has kicked off the official post-celebration finger pointing with a report that says internal critics of the project were “gagged and banished” by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
Investigative journalist Roland De Wolk wrote the report for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, which was released Thursday amid ongoing problems with the bridge that could prove to be expensive to fix down the road. It raises questions about the quality of the work and the conditions under which key decisions were made.
Wolk found that, “At least nine top bridge engineers, scientists, and other distinguished bridge construction experts who worked on the project have similar stories of being gagged and banished” for their contrarian opinions. “When silencing people didn't seem sufficient, it appears those top managers ultimately punished dissidents by either dissolving their contracts or transferring them to other assignments.”
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) is currently working on a report that is expected to include some of those allegations. The $6.5-billion project has been plagued by snapped bolts, water leaks, rust, cracked road decks, bad welds and other problems.
Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, who got the job in 2011, said in a press release that the report “rehashes issues that have been investigated, reviewed and in many cases resolved.” He said it was full of “misrepresentations and inaccuracies raised before” and discounted any claims of retribution.
“If I found out there was retaliation, I absolutely would be against it,” Dougherty told the Contra Costa Times. He did not say he would be for retaliation if it weren’t found out.
Dougherty was much more pleased by a second report from a panel of independent engineers, also released on Thursday, which he said was “consistent with what Caltrans and all independent prior reviews have said:”
Senate Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) told the Sacramento Bee days ago that the actions described in the report warranted a criminal investigation of Caltrans, but backed off those remarks on Thursday and sounded like he would be satisfied if Caltrans was “more transparent” and “accountable.”
De Wolk’s report was not a technical assessment of the project, the world’s longest self-anchored suspension span which replaced the Oakland-to-Yerba Island half of the bridge. But he noted “that no one in this inquiry has said the bridge is unsafe. Even the most aggrieved critics involved in the construction say they have confidence in the integrity of the structure.”
But many of those with engineering knowledge said the projected 150-year lifespan of the bridge was “exaggerated” and the overwhelming majority expected that expensive, unplanned retrofitting would be necessary.
The report included remarks by Jim Merrill, a senior manager with MacTec Engineering and Consulting, Inc.who was cited extensively in a report presented in January to the Senate committee. Merrill said he was “alarmed” by quality control lapses in China, a country supplying large segments of the steel bridge deck that proved to be problematic.
Eventually, cracks in welds appeared that could not be ignored and work was stopped for two years to make $100 million in repairs. Merrill said Caltrans supervisors told him he was being “too rigorous” in his findings.