Senate Report Says Caltrans Squelched Engineering Complaints about Bay Bridge

Thursday, January 23, 2014
New Bay Bridge, on the right (photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)

It took six years longer than expected to replace the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. A new state Senate report suggests they should have taken a little longer.

“The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future,” released days before a hearing on the project’s trials and travails, raises serious questions about the bridge’s structural integrity and the process that led to questionable construction decisions and huge cost overruns. The bridge’s final cost of $6.4 billion, which doesn’t include another $6.6 billion in finance charges, is four times the original sticker price.

“Now, we are finding out that not only did the bridge cost too much and take too long, but there was a willful attempt to make sure the public didn't know what was going on,” Senator Mark DeSaulnier told the Contra Costa Times. DeSaulnier is chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee that commissioned the report and is holding the hearing.

The report looks back, almost nostalgically, at the causes of “massive cost overruns” pre-2005, which were documented in a piecemeal fashion—“design changes, political delays, unfavorable market conditions and world events far beyond mortal control.” The fondness it expresses is for a level of transparency that did not exist after that date.

Instead, investigators found what “appears to be part of an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project.” Money was doled out to contractors in the form of “incentives,” “accelerations” and “mitigations” for work that should already have been done. And the work that was done is of a questionable nature.

Some of the most stinging criticism about construction practices in the report, prepared by an independent consultant, came from Jim Merrill, a senior manager with MacTec Engineering and Consulting, Inc. He told investigators that his company’s warnings about quality control lapses in China, a country supplying large segments of the steel bridge deck, were ignored by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Eventually, cracks in welds appeared that could not be ignored and work was stopped for two years to make $100 million in repairs. Merrill told a similar story about rods that weren’t sufficiently tested and snapped after installation. That problem almost held up last Labor Day’s opening ceremony and raised questions about their long-term viability.

Caltrans employees echoed Merrill’s criticism and concerns. Philip J. Stolarksi, with Caltrans Division of Engineering Services, told investigators, “For the Chinese, the weld standards were ‘suggestions.’ ”

Caltrans supervising bridge engineer Douglas Coe, who lost his role after complaining about bad welds on Chinese products in 2009, said that a former top Caltrans bridge manager told Merrill, “Don’t find cracks.” MacTec’s 10-year contract was not renewed shortly thereafter.

Caltrans has consistently said that all issues raised with

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Senate Report: Caltrans Ignored Shoddy Work on Bay Bridge in China and U.S. (by Charles Piller, Sacramento Bee)

Bay Bridge Construction Managers Systematically Shut Down Safety Critics, Investigation Concludes (by Lisa Vorderbrueggen, Contra Costa Times)

Caltrans Accused of Trying to Hide Bridge Problems (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future (Report to the California State Senate Transportation & Housing Committee)

Why Did Caltrans Use Previously Banned Bay Bridge Bolts that Are Breaking? (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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