“The bridge is safe,” California Department of Transportation officials intoned Tuesday at a state senate transportation committee hearing, so many times that chairman Mark DeSaulnier asked them to stop. The Concord Democrat was willing to concede that the stylish new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, ten years late and $5 billion over budget, was safe enough. Taxpayers and motorists alike might have cause to wonder, however, whether the bridge is more than twice as safe as the old one, as Caltrans bosses claim.
Despite his exasperated concession, DeSaulnier has repeatedly argued that Caltrans accepted substandard work at taxpayer expense, and he says he will ask Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch a criminal investigation. He’s touting a state senate report that charges that Caltrans bosses “gagged and banished” at least nine top bridge engineers, scientists, and other experts. In “closed-door meetings,” transportation department officials reportedly approved “extra millions” for “incentives,” “accelerations,” and “mitigations” to open the bridge by Labor Day last year. Their behavior, the report alleges, amounted to “an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project.”
At an earlier hearing in January, witnesses told DeSaulnier in considerable detail how Caltrans bosses, pushing to complete the project, compromised public safety by ignoring problems with welds, bolts, and rods. Fabrication manager Keith Devonport, Skyped in from England, testified about flawed welds and “willful blindness” on the part of Caltrans managers “looking for ways not to look at some of the issues.” Caltrans geologist Michael Morgan testified that safety problems were kept secret, ignored, and covered up. Morgan was among the first to call for a criminal investigation. He brought his evidence to several state audit agencies, but none took action. So Morgan told his story to the Sacramento Bee, which published a series of investigative articles by Charles Piller highlighting the safety concerns.
Several storms in recent years exposed parts of the bridge to flooding, and corrosion was evident even before the span opened to motorists. A few months before the bridge was scheduled to open last year, dozens of long metal support rods snapped. Metallurgical engineer Lisa Thomas testified that this was due to “hydrogen embrittlement,” a problem Caltrans invited by opting to use Grade BD steel, rather than the more robust Grade BC. Thomas says that hydrogen is to this type of steel “as Kryptonite is to Superman.”
Caltrans also outsourced work to China, where workers produced cracked welds. Nathan Lindell, a former quality-assurance manager, testified that “the project was not built under the same rule book” as other California bridges. Chinese welders, he says, slept through training sessions. Caltrans engineer Douglas Coe noted that every one of the bridge’s 750 Chinese-made panels had to be repaired. After Coe raised concerns about defective welds, Caltrans project manager Tony Anziano—a lawyer, not an engineer—reassigned him. At the January hearing, Anziano denied telling anyone not to write anything down, thus avoiding disclosure under state public records laws. “There has been no concealment of issues,” Anziano insisted on August 5. He reassigned Coe, Anziano explained, because “he could no longer be a member of the team.”
Yet despite serious questions about the bridge’s safety, Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty assured lawmakers that “quality was not compromised.” DeSaulnier had to press Daugherty to admit that Caltrans had made any mistakes working on the project. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, allowed that bridge managers had “traded money for time,” but “never once traded quality for time.” DeSaulnier wasn’t convinced. “I don’t believe you,” he said bluntly, noting that the department “audits itself,” and that in Caltrans culture, “you don’t go after the trouble, you go after the troublemaker.”
Since 2011, DeSaulnier has introduced six bills to reform Caltrans, including the creation of an independent inspector general. But Governor Jerry Brown vetoed them all. Referring to the bridge-safety concerns last year, Brown told reporters, “I mean, look, shit happens.” Earlier this year, Brown called the Bee’s investigative reporting “journalistic malpractice.” Tuesday’s hearing suggests that the real malpractice took place during construction of the bridge.
Referring to “disaffected citizens who don’t believe in government,” DeSaulnier has complained that Caltrans’ cost overruns, the ten-year delay, and safety worries have all helped erode public confidence, making Californians “averse to taxes” that the government needs for other infrastructure projects—like high-speed rail, which DeSaulnier supports “if it’s done right.” If it isn’t, and it reaches the same ratio of cost overruns as the Bay Bridge, California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project would cost upward of $272 billion by the time it’s up and running. DeSaulnier also mentioned a “water project,” surely a reference to Governor Brown’s $25 billion proposal to build a pair of tunnels under the San Joaquin Delta. The cost of those tunnels would be closer to $100 billion with cost overruns in proportion to the Bay Bridge. As the bridge hearings this week confirmed, that kind of malpractice “happens.”