BBBB–Criminally Bad?

Didn’t expect a Bay Bridge update quite so soon after the last one, did you? Well, stuff is happening, and I feel an obligation to keep you informed, hopefully before the news is totally stale.

As in the past, most of my information comes from Jaxon Van Derbeken’s excellent articles in the SF Chronicle. I’ll call out the exception to that rule when I get there.

On Friday the First, Jaxon reported that the state Senate’s investigative report on the Bay Bridge mess included accusations from engineers that Caltrans reassigned them to other projects when they tried to report problems. Caltrans’ response to the accusations? According to Jaxon, Director Malcolm Dougherty “said that ‘there could have been better communication amongst the team.” Even better, “Failure to do that [ensure that all team members were aware of how decisions were made] … could lead to a sense of isolation in some cases, but that is not retaliation.”

Really? Assigning someone to a different project is a form of communication? I suppose one could make that case. It’s certainly an area where the form of the communication conveys more information than the communication itself.

Jaxon’s article on Tuesday the Fifth, ahead of a state Senate hearing, reiterates the accusations of banishing engineers with safety concerns about the bridge, and adds that an independent engineering panel is concerned about Caltrans’ quality control process on the bridge. That’s not exactly news–we’ve been questioning Caltrans’ QA since Day One–but the panel is calling for a complete risk analysis “to pinpoint the likely weakest link on the span in an earthquake.” This is not a standard procedure for bridges, although it is for complex, high-risk structures such as nuclear power plants and offshore oil platforms.

Caltrans continued to maintain that they did “almost nothing wrong”. Tellingly, according to Jaxon, that claim is limited to construction; Caltrans is silent on whether they did anything wrong in regard to management and testing.

As we’ve heard before, engineers reporting problems were ordered to report orally, rather than to leave a paper trail. If QA engineers were routinely required to report verbally, that would certainly explain why there doesn’t seem to be any QA documentation that Caltrans could display to settle questions of wrongdoing.

Wednesday, state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly told the Senate committee he has directed the California Highway Patrol to investigate the charges of retaliation and hiding evidence of problems. It’s an administrative investigation, not a criminal inquiry, but presumably if the investigation uncovers evidence of criminal behavior, a new investigation could be launched. The committee’s chairman, Senator Mark DeSaulnier, said that he intends to turn over the committee’s report to state and federal prosecutors “to determine whether criminal charges are merited against anyone involved in the bridge project.”

Malcom Dougherty’s response according to Jaxon: “[He] said there was nothing to merit such a probe. ‘I don’t have evidence of criminal activity.'”

Gotcha, Malcolm. We’ll be happy to take your word for the fact that Caltrans didn’t do anything criminal. There’s certainly no need for an independent investigation. Fox guarding the hen house, anyone?

And the latest salvo in the battle: On Sunday, the Chronicle’s conservative voice, Debra J. Saunders, wrote an opinion piece strongly hinting that she believes Governor Brown, Mayor Brown, and other (mostly Democratic) politicians should be held legally accountable for the Bay Bridge’s twenty-four year, $6.4 billion dollar construction. After all, she says “After the 1994 Northridge quake, GOP Gov. Pete Wilson…got needed bridge repairs done in 66 days.”

Gosh, Debra, why didn’t Pete shortcut the Bay Bridge too? Last time I checked, 1994 was smack in between the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 2013 completion of the bridge. If you’re going to start assigning culpability to politicians for Caltrans’ “culture of mismanagement,” at least be even-handed about it, and share the blame with everyone who has theoretically overseen Caltrans during the past quarter-century.

In fairness, Debra did report one new piece of information. According to her, Transportation Secretary Kelly claims the new bridge is twice as safe as the old one. I have to agree with Senator DeSaulnier, who considers that rather less safety than we paid for.

Hey, Lior was in town last week and rode across the Bay Bridge a couple of times. Did you feel safe on the bridge? Do you feel less safe in retrospect? (Disclaimer: Although Lior is a QA engineer, as far as I know, he’s not trained in construction or other large-scale physical engineering disciplines.) Aren’t you glad BART wasn’t on strike, putting another few hundred thousand people on the bridge with you?

Summing up: We’ve reached the point where people are openly discussing criminal charges related to the construction of the new Bay Bridge. That goes well beyond anything I expected when I started writing about the Bolt Botch last year. Here’s a charming thought for you: If there’s a significantly-sized quake in the next few years, and anyone is injured or killed on the Bay Bridge, who gets sued? And, more to the point, who should get sued?

2 thoughts on “BBBB–Criminally Bad?

  1. We did “almost nothing wrong”.
    An adult said this? An adult in a responsible position?
    Alright, fine. Now that you’ve admitted that some thing or things were done wrong, maybe you could tell us what they were.
    Honest to God, it’s like watching rats on a sinking ship, desperately looking for some way off.
    Oh, and in answer to your question: do you really have to ask? The State of California would get sued- that is, you and me, as taxpayers. Jezus, what an amazing clusterfrack!

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    • I think you do the rats an injustice. With lines like that, it seems he thinks nothing can possibly happen to him. In context, it’s clear that those “things” are what we already know about: the broken bolts, the incorrectly welded bike path, the leaks, the rusting iron embedded in the paint,… Obviously, compared to all of the important parts of the bridge, those are “nothing”.

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