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Inquiry: Bay Bridge Concerns Quashed

Monday, January 27, 2014

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Critics were fired or reassigned, safety questions deflected, information suppressed, and a "malicious" lack of transparency shrouded construction of the world's most expensive bridge, a new report concludes.

"The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future," based on months of in-depth interviews with engineers and officials on the $6.4 billion project, alleges that the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee kept safety issues quiet by firing and reassigning those who disagreed and urging that information be kept off the record.

Bay Bridge report
Flickr / sirgious

The question of transparency is "inextricably meshed" with the question of safety, a new report on how the Bay Bridge project was handled says.

"I'm mad as hell that the Department (Caltrans) put me in a position to have to say this," said one Caltrans engineer. "...But if that bridge starts to crack in five years, it's all going to come out."

Keeping Quiet

(Accountants have now calculated the final sum of the bridge at $13 billion, once bond principal and interest is paid off in 40 years.)

The report cited "chronic attempts" to keep many of the safety allegations "quiet, put aside and not dealt with in an open, businesslike manner in the public's best interest."

There are "legitimate concerns that this appears to be part of an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project," the inquiry concludes.

Comprised of representatives from the California Department of Transportation, the California Transportation Committee and the Bay Area Toll Authority, the Toll Bridge Oversight Committee has managed construction of the new Bay Bridge since 2005.

Requested by Senator

The inquiry was put together by an outside consultant at the request of State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), Chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. The committee was set to meet Friday (Jan. 24) to discuss "Lessons Learned From the Development of the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge."

The report is not an engineering audit and presents no findings on questions such as the quality of deck welds, anchor rods or foundations.

However, it says that project transparency is "inextricably meshed" with issues of safety. The report cites  "ample" evidence that key safety issues briefly appeared and then disappeared because of "extraordinary exemptions" for TBPOC from laws governing public disclosure.

Troubled Waters

Although the bridge opened as scheduled Sept. 2, 2013, it had been plagued by problems since March, when 32 anchor rods, or bolts, were damaged when they popped loose days after crews tightened them. The anchor rods were originally installed in holes in the concrete caps in 2008, but these holes were left to fill with rainwater for five years before the bolts were tightened.

Caltrans engineers ordered tests on the bolts in 2008, but those tests were never done after contractor American Bridge/Fluor disputed whether they were required. In April, Caltrans released hundreds of pages of documents that showed its inspectors found structural integrity issues with some of the bolts years ago.

Investigation, Hearings

DeSaulnier announced in October that he would lead an investigation into issues on the Bay Bridge project, as well as chair a series of Senate Transportation and Housing Committee hearings to examine problems that impact all megaprojects and improvements that can be made by Caltrans management.


By the end of the 40 years it will take to pay off the Bay Bridge, the project could cost close to $13 billion, an accountant said.

The committee will report on its findings, which DeSaulnier said he expects to "inspire reform measures."

Last fall, two California engineers published a report lambasting the TBPOC's analysis of engineering issues on the anchor rods, saying the panel lacked expertise and calling its work "woefully inadequate."

The engineers said Caltrans needed "meaningful reform ... before they are allowed to take on another mega-project for the State of California."

Caltrans, which has about 20,000 employees working on at least 600 projects at any given time, is currently undertaking what it calls a "top-to-bottom" review of its practices.

Concerning Pattern

The controversies over the bolts, change orders, and other issues "indicates a pattern that should prompt concern," the report said.

For example, it said, senior principal James Merrill led a team of engineers and technicians at MACTEC, a quality assurance firm tasked with auditing Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd. (ZPMC) before it was allowed to build the bridge's steel decks and self-anchored suspension tower.

Merrill said his team had given ZPMC a "contingent pass," finding it had the infrastructure for the job, but lacked experience and personnel. However, Merrill said Caltrans was taking a "great risk" by letting ZPMC do the work.

Then there was Caltrans Civil Engineer Douglas Coe, who worked alongside Merrill and MACTEC. He said that hundreds of cracks in welds had turned into thousands.

"The Chinese were not catching stuff," Coe said in his interview, adding he was concerned that bridge managers were pushing aside Merrill's findings.

No Written Records

Coe and Merrill said that Principal Construction Manager Peter Siegenthaler and Program Manager Tony Anziano had instructed them not to record any concerns in writing; Merrill said Anziano did not want a record that would be legally available through the California Public Records Act.

Bay Bridge bolts

"[I]f that bridge starts to crack in five years, it's all going to come out," a Caltrans civil engineer said about the bridge's issues in an interview for the report.

"Anyone who went against Tony [Anziano] didn't stick around," Coe said. When Coe found "irrevocable evidence" of a failure to adequately inspect the welds, Anziano reassigned him to lesser duty on the Antioch Bridge in the Bay Area, Coe said.

'Mad as Hell'

"I'm mad as hell that the Department (Caltrans) put me in a position to have to say this. It's a loss of public trust," Coe said. "But if that bridge starts to crack in five years, it's all going to come out."

However, Siegenthaler, Anziano and TBOC Chairman/MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said they had a different memory of these events. They also say that the bridge cracks were repairable and have been largely fixed and that the bridge is safe.

Anziano also said that he did not recall asking for written communication to be avoided. He said he sent Coe to the Antioch Bridge after determining that Coe "had been unable to establish a working relationship with our contractors" and a "fresh assignment" was good for Coe.

Michael Morgan, a Caltrans engineering geologist and expert on foundation testing for bridges, raised concerns about testing the concrete pours on two key concrete foundations, and said managers repeatedly instructed them not to put anything in writing.

"This is a common refrain among most of the executive staff that I have dealt with. ...We heard it directly and indirectly many times," Morgan said.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Corrosion; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government contracts; Health and safety; Performance testing; Project Management; Retrofits; Steel

Comment from Chuck Pease, (1/27/2014, 5:55 PM)

WOW..... as the worm turns. What a fiasco. Sure glad my family or myself dont have to cross that thing.

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