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Bay Bridge Inspectors Rebut Critics

Thursday, February 6, 2014

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Naysayers who questioned transportation officials’ integrity on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project skewed information to provide a misleading account, a new review contends.

"The Bay Bridge was built to the highest standards of safety and quality used to date, anywhere in the world," concludes a new analysis by Alta Vista Solutions, which performed an independent quality assurance inspection for the California Department of Transportation on the bridge's new East Span.

"The notion that safety and quality were sacrificed in the interests of scheduling is simply incorrect; if anything, the exact opposite is true."

Bay Bridge / Courtesy of John Bors, Chemco Systems

A new report about the Bay Bridge project attacks the project's naysayers, calling them emotional and inaccurate.

The $6.4 billion bridge has taken center stage in a series of California Senate Transportation Committee hearings that have transportation officials, engineers, and outside consultants slinging accusations.

It's no secret that the project encountered an array of issues, but Alta Vista's analysis strongly rebuts a recent report that claimed that safety issues and transparency were suppressed during the project.

Alta Vista's new 14-page analysis, written by company president Patrick Lowry, challenges the assertions of "The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future," a preliminary report authored by Roland De Wolk, a former KTVU Fox News television producer.

The Transportation Committee and Chairman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) had hired De Wolk to produce a comprehensive project timeline and review, starting with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the new span's opening in September.

Plagued with Problems

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 2013, Caltrans released hundreds of pages of documents that showed its inspectors found structural integrity issues with some of the bolts years ago.

Last fall, two California engineers released a 105-page report, "High Strength Steel Anchor Rod Problems on the New Bay Bridge," lambasting the state Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee's analysis of engineering issues on anchor rods that are key for the bridge's seismic stability.

That report condemned the work of the Toll Bridge panel, saying it lacked expertise and calling its work "woefully inadequate."

The panel, comprised of representatives from Caltrans, the California Transportation Committee, and the Bay Area Toll Authority, has managed the bridge construction since 2005.

Investigation and Hearings

DeSaulnier announced in October that he would lead an investigation into the project, which was significantly delayed and well over budget, and chair committee hearings to examine problems that impact all megaprojects.

On Jan. 24, his committee held its second hearing, examining De Wolk's allegations in a daylong session.

De Wolk's review "concludes that a general lack of transparency created the fertile ground for project managers to make decisions largely outside of the view of the public, its elected representatives, and the press," the committee said in a background paper for the hearing.

While Alta Vista agreed that "transparency in the affairs of the public is paramount and leads to accountability," it said the interviews and testimony used for De Wolk's report had provided misleading and inaccurate information.

Alta Vista Solutions
Alta Vista Solutions

Patrick Lowry, president of Alta Vista Solutions and author of the rebuttal analysis, spoke Jan. 24 at the Senate Transportation Committee's hearing into the Bay Bridge project. The company submitted its report to the panel Feb. 3. Another hearing is planned for Feb. 11.

Alta Vista sent its report to DeSaulnier and the committee on Monday (Feb. 3). A third hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11.

Clouded by Emotions, Anger

"On a project of this nature, any decision made can impose millions of dollars of costs and significant delays, and while cost and scheduling considerations do not outweight safety and quality, they must be taken into account on any project built with public funds," Alta Vista wrote.

Alta Vista said De Wolk's conclusions would have been different if he "was fully aware of all the facts and background related to specific issues."

De Wolk's report was "largely based on interviews and testimony by two individuals that had been removed from the project and not worked on the new bridge construction for over five years," Alta Vista said.

Those individuals are Doug Coe, a former Caltrans civil engineer; and James Merrill, now an AMEC executive who previously led a team of engineers and technicians at MACTEC. The quality assurance firm was 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. (AMEC later bought out MACTEC.)

Asked to comment Wednesday (Feb. 5) on Alta Vista's criticism, De Wolk responded, "If you seek an accurate story, you will have to contact Sam Manhood [communications director] at Sen. DeSaulnier's office."

'Mad as Hell'

According to Alta Vista, Coe was removed from the Bay Bridge project "for being unable to work effectively with the project team," while Merrill's MACTEC was "the previous Bay Bridge engineering firm that lost the contract to Alta Vista Solutions."

De Wolk's report said Coe had been reassigned to "lesser duty" on the nearby Antioch Bridge after telling Caltrans program manager Tony Anziano that he had "irrevocable evidence" of failure to adequately inspect the welds.

Roland De Wolk

De Wolk was hired by the Senate Transportation Committee to produce a comprehensive timeline and review starting with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the new span's opening in September.

"Anyone who went against Tony didn't stick around," Coe said in De Wolk's report.

"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."

Being "mad as hell" probably skewed Coe's memory, Alta Vista said, leading to comments that "may have been clouded by his emotions."

"...Mr. Coe has chosen to suggest in his statements to the Committee that the engineers involved in the decision-making process should be concerned with losing their professional engineering licenses," Lowry wrote.

"I cannot reconcile Mr. Coe's own previous actions, statement, and recommendations on the one hand, with his current statements to the Committee on the other hand, except to believe that he has become emotional and angry over this issue as it was closely connected to his removal from the Bay Bridge project," Lowry said.

Both Merrill and Coe have said that the bridge is safe, but that the decks will require retrofitting throughout the life of the span.

Omissions and Clarifications

De Wolk's report also said Caltran's Materials Engineering and Testing Service (METS) had agreed with MACTEC that there were a significant number of cracks in the deck welds underway at ZPMC.

"We found hundreds of cracks," Merrill stated. However, he added, Caltrans supervisors had told him he was being "too rigorous," which led Caltrans to dissolve its usual separation of quality oversight and construction, according to De Wolk's report.

Merrill and his team gave ZPMC a "contingent pass," finding the company had the infrastructure for the Bay Bridge job, but lacked experience and personnel. Still, Caltrans was taking "great risk" in letting ZPMC do the work, according to De Wolk's report.

However, Alta Vista says De Wolk failed to report that Merrill had conducted a follow-up review detailing corrective actions taken by ZPMC and recommended changing the company's audit status to "pass."

'Military Style'

Quality assurance experts typically reported their findings to METS, but after the disagreement over weld quality at ZPMC, Caltrans executives told MACTEC and Merrill to stop reporting to METS and instead report to the construction team, according to De Wolk.

Alta Vista contends that the reporting relationship was changed, in part, because MACTEC was unable to  respond to the project's needs.

"When I was a Principal Engineer with MACTEC, I documented my frustration with MACTEC's inability to identify and implement effective systems" in a memo, Lowry said. The memo said MACTEC had a culture and organization that "rendered it unable" to meet Caltrans' expectations.

Lowry said that this was largely because Merrill acted in a "dictatorial manner," rejected open communication, and used a "military-style approach" to "control and compartmentalize information."


The $6.4 billion Bay Bridge project was plagued with problems, most notably the busted anchor rods that are necessary for seismic stability.

De Wolk's report "correctly calls for transparency, but transparency was not a value that Mr. Merrill promoted while he was actually on the job," Lowry said.

Qualifications Questioned

In the fall of 2008, MACTEC's contracts were up for renewal and Caltrans re-advertised them, eventually hiring  another company, Caltrop. Caltrop then sub-contracted quality assurance work to Alta Vista.

De Wolk reported that an independent pre-audit of Caltrop/Alta Vista by Mayes Testing Engineers found the group "not adequately qualified for the job" and the staff "not even properly certified."

Mayes' owner, Michael Mayes, wrote a report for Caltrans program manager Anziano that "never got out of the draft stage," according to De Wolk.

"He kept asking me to change things," Mayes said in the De Wolk report. "I had my suspicions. I think he didn't want it to get out that these guys were not qualified."

(The California Public Records Act shields disclosure of draft documents and those not formally accepted.)

'Inaccurate and False'

Alta Vista called the allegation "inaccurate and false." It said Mayes submitted a final report that concluded that all but one individual on the team had the necessary skill and certification.

Alta Vista also took issue with how De Wolk reported Peter Siegenthaler's 2011 decision to resign as Caltrans' principal construction manager and become a vice president with Alta Vista. Siegenthaler had been with Caltrans for 28 years.

Alta Vista said De Wolk's description of the change was "apparently intended to discredit the open and fair selection of the Caltrop/Alta Vista team."

In fact, Alta Vista said, Siegenthaler took time off after Caltrans and formally requested advice from the California Fair Political Practices Commission regarding post-governmental employment. The commission ruled that Siegenthaler was not prohibited from working for any consultant.

Furthermore, Siegenthaler never worked on the Bay Bridge project at Alta Vista, the company said.

Senate Transportation Committee
Senate Transportation Committee Witness Handout

"I don't believe you, and I don't think the public will have great confidence in what you have said, either. It is incumbent upon you to prove that your assertations are factual," Sen. DeSaulnier told Caltrans officials at the Jan. 24 hearing.

Anziano has said that the MACTEC contract was dropped because of "complaints" in the contractor community that the same people were getting the "plum jobs" and Caltrans was not allowing for competition.

Anziano also said he did not recall any serious objections by Mayes Testing to the Caltrop/Alta Vista contract, and that the properly certified personnel were eventually added to the team.

'I Don't Believe You'

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty told the committee at the Jan. 24 hearing that the critics cited by De Wolk were "not representative of the overall conclusions reached by engineers at the time those decisions were made," the Contra Costa Times reported.

Anziano told the committee that he never asked his staff to give verbal, rather than written, updates as a way to skirt public record laws.

But DeSaulnier told the officials:

"I don't believe you, and I don't think the public will have great confidence in what you have said, either. It is incumbent upon you to prove that your assertations are factual."

"I don't know why people would go through the trouble of coming and testifying and exposing themselves to this type of criticism—particularly Caltrans employees who are loyal and have served the state well—if there isn't some truth to what they are saying."


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

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