An Open Letter to Jaxon Van Derbeken

Dear Jaxon,

You blew it.

I’ve been reading your coverage of the ongoing fiasco that is the eastern span of the Bay Bridge since the days when we all thought the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch was the only fault.

You’ve been doing a great job, explaining technical issues in clear, non-technical language; showing how newly-discovered issues relate to previously-known problems; and calling out problems at all levels of the project: design missteps, testing failures, and breakdowns in oversight.

When I saw the front page headline on last Sunday’s Chron, “Special Report – The Troubled Bay Bridge: How landmark became debacle, I was thrilled. My immediate thought was “Awesome! Jaxon is going to name names and kick butt.”

Imagine my disappointment when I read the article. Anyone reading it would think that every single problem with the bridge is the fault of the selection committee who chose the self-anchored suspension design.

Granted, the committee bears some responsibility for the problems, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that everything would have been perfectly fine if they had chosen the conventional, well-understood cable-stayed design.

Not one word about the engineers who incorporated multiple unrepairable elements into the specifications. No mention of the violations of Caltrans’ own guidelines that led to the use of galvanized bolts. Complete silence regarding the tests and inspections that were either never performed or were not properly documented. Only a passing mention of the issues caused by poor oversight of subcontractors and low bidding suppliers. All issues you’ve covered in previous articles. All issues stemming from Caltrans’ dysfunctional culture, hence likely to have affected the construction of the Bay Bridge no matter what design had been chosen.

You imply that the make-up of the committee was at fault because the majority had little or no experience with bridge design and construction. Yet this is typical, not just in engineering, but in every field of endeavor: decisions are made by managers, executives, or elected representatives who have no experience in the field. That’s why they take the advice of the experts. In this case, as your article makes clear, many of the experts on the committee believed the problems could be overcome, and the self-anchored bridge could be built for only slightly more than ten percent more than the cable-stayed design. That makes the decision much more rational than you suggest.

If Caltrans officials truly were, as you report, “absolutely horrified,” then the error can–must–be assigned to them. If they honestly believed that Caltrans could not build the self-anchored span within the budgeted time and cost, they should have made that clear to the committee long before the final vote was taken.

As it stands, this piece is almost as disappointing as the Bay Bridge itself; far below your usual standard. Please tell me there was an error in laying out the article, that the magic words “Part One of an ongoing series” were somehow omitted. Come on, Jaxon, name the names and kick the butts of the people who were really responsible for sticking us with an overpriced bridge of dubious stability.

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