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Senate reports are critical of Bay Bridge construction oversight

Reports for Senate committee say new Bay Bridge span is safe but problems will require vigilant maintenance
Senate committee report says nine engineers and other experts on Bay Bridge project had criticisms silenced

Two reports prepared for a state Senate committee reiterate that the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is safe, but note problems with transparency, oversight of engineering flaws and purported retaliation against top project employees who raised concerns.

The reports -- a commissioned assessment of the project by investigative reporter Roland De Wolk, and a design and construction review by a panel of independent engineers -- were made public Thursday in advance of a hearing Tuesday by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

The documents come days after Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) -- the committee chairman -- told the Sacramento Bee that he believes the contents warrant a criminal probe of Caltrans for knowingly accepting substandard work at taxpayer expense, and retaliating against those who sought to bring problems to light.

In a statement Thursday he was more circumspect, saying the independent reports "speak for themselves -- Caltrans needs to become more accessible and open to the public. While it was troubling to watch a project of this magnitude run into so many issues, I am hopeful that it will be the impetus to create a more transparent, accountable Caltrans."

The world's largest self-anchored suspension span opened to the public last September -- 10 years behind schedule and $5 billion over budget.

Construction problems have trickled out over the past few years largely through media reports. They included cracks in deck welds manufactured in China, snapped anchor rods that had been embrittled by hydrogen exposure and apparent corrosion in the cables.

The revelations have led to multiple reviews and assessments. An earlier version of the DeWolk report, commissioned by the state Senate committee, was released in January and extensively discussed in a committee hearing.

One of the reports released Thursday reiterated that "even the most aggrieved critics involved in the construction say they have confidence in the integrity of the structure," but noted that "the vast majority of the same men have separately agreed that portions of the new bridge will likely require retrofitting throughout the life of the span."

The report does not attempt to evaluate engineering decisions. Rather, it explores management decisions that it contends contributed to high costs, delays and purported retribution against critics. 

Two of those -- engineers James Merrill and Douglas Coe -- testified in January that they were largely sidelined after raising concerns about the Chinese welds. Thursday's report details interviews with seven more engineers, contractors and consultants on the project who were reportedly "gagged and banished" after raising similar quality control concerns.

Among them is Nathan Lindell, who was employed by prime contractor American Bridge/Fluor. He described in an interview with De Wolk finding "oversized welds, undersized welds, welding over previously deposited slag ... welding with unapproved procedures, insufficient repair weld quality," and more.

The report says that top bridge managers responded to concerns by telling critics not to put them in writing, and that they eventually changed contract rules to accept the cracked welds.

Overall, the report calls for greater transparency in future projects but gives state leaders credit for already working toward that, noting that the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee created by the Legislature in 2005 recently moved to open its meetings to the public. They were previously exempt from open meeting laws.

The report also calls for the Legislature and "top tiers" of state government to investigate the quashing of dissent.

In an interview Thursday, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said the state transportation secretary in January asked the California Highway Patrol to investigate the "serious" allegations of retribution against project critics, a probe that is ongoing.

"I'm very interested to see what the Highway Patrol comes back with when they look into the same accusations," he said.

As for the Chinese-made welds, Dougherty said the report offers "a few more dissenters" while disregarding a 300-page report by a peer review panel that concluded in 2011 that the welds were adequately repaired.

"It speaks to a small number of people who were working on the job and what their opinions were," he said. "What’s lost is there was a larger engineering consensus to address how to deal with the problems with the welds. They were addressed … and the product was delivered safely."

Also released Thursday in advance of the hearing is a report by a panel of engineers tasked with providing a "high-level and independent review" of the span's design and construction.

The panel gave Caltrans good marks for its approach to seismic safety and said "generally accepted procedures" were used in the design and construction of the tower foundation. It also noted that foundation defects were properly assessed, and said the retrofit to resolve the broken bolt problem "appears to have restored the strength provided by the original design."

Dougherty said he was "pleased" with those findings, calling them "consistent with what Caltrans and all independent prior reviews have said: the Bay Bridge is safe and will provide Bay Area commuters with a stunning and reliable corridor for years to come."

But the panel also warned that the collection of problems identified on the span "could reduce the reliability of future bridge performance, and likely increase costs of maintenance over its useful life."

As a result, the engineers wrote, a "robust inspection and maintenance program" should be funded by the state. Caltrans, they added, would benefit from "more robust independent peer review" and suggested quality control be performed by independent third parties to avoid "real and perceived conflicts of interest."

Regarding Tuesday’s hearing, Dougherty said “I hope we can get back to a productive conversation on what I think we have a mutual interest in -- verifying the safety of the bridge and identifying lessons going forward.” 

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