The B-sides

You know, when I started writing about the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, I didn’t really expect to get more than a couple of posts out of it before moving on to some fresh new piece of ineptness. Same thing with BART. I expected to do one or two columns about management and the unions shooting themselves in the feet, and then be done with it.

Clearly, Caltrans and BART are exceeding all expectations. I’m quite happy to have such splendid targets for my curmudgeonly wrath. So happy that I need to be careful about overdoing it. I don’t want to bore my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers, so I’m going to limit myself to one post per month about the Bs. Unless there’s some breaking news, of course…

So with that said, here’s the B-side for February.

Let’s start with the Bay Bridge. The new bridge has been open since September and it hasn’t fallen down yet. What’s to talk about?

Well, way back in pre-history (i.e. before I started writing this blog), there was a mini-scandal involving bad welds on major structural members of the roadbed. I say “mini-scandal” because the welds were inspected, some of them were redone, and Caltrans moved on to bigger and better cost overruns.

Now we have whistle-blowers claiming that they had been ordered not to report the bad welds in writing so that the reports wouldn’t become part of the public record. That could explain a lot. If the accusations are true–and let’s note that they haven’t been proven–they could be part of a general Caltrans policy. Find a problem, report it verbally. We’ve been asking since we started talking about the bridge where the records of the QA work are. Maybe now we know: they don’t exist, not because no testing was done, but because supervisors didn’t want problems documented. Interesting thought, no?

Speaking of cost overruns, it appears that taking down the old eastern span of the bridge is already six months behind schedule. That’s not going to be cheap to fix… It seems that the core of the problem is that Caltrans was so busy trying to open the bridge by Labor Day that nobody filed the necessary paperwork to get the demolition permits. Really? Caltrans has–according to Wikipedia–over 22,000 employees. None of them said “Hey, wait a minute. The plan says we need to file for demolition permits about now”? Or maybe there wasn’t a plan? I know: the plan was communicated verbally to ensure there was not public record of delays! Oh, wait.

Then there’s BART. Everyone, labor and management, have signed off on the new contracts, so it should be smooth sailing now–at least for a couple of years until they start negotiating the new contracts, right? Apparently not. BART board President Joel Keller is pushing for a new contract negotiation process modeled on the one used by Major League Baseball: both sides supply two representatives. They then select a neutral fifth person, such as a retired judge, and the panel chooses either BART’s proposed contract or the unions’. No compromises, one contract or the other. The proposal has met with limited approval, but the unions are not going to sign onto it if a provision preventing them from striking while the board is considering the proposed contracts remains. My own thought: the idea has a lot of merit, but I’d like to see the commuters get a voice in the process. Add a requirement that the fifth panel member has to have commuted via BART at least twice a week for the previous year, and I’m in.

Labor negotiations may be the least of BART’s problems in the immediate future, though. Right now, there are a lot of eyes on the BART police. Yes, BART has its own police force, and yes, they are actually police, not security guards. They’re in the public eye because one officer died in a “friendly fire” incident two weeks ago during a probation search of a robbery suspect’s apartment. Why were BART officers conducting the search? Because the robberies in question had occurred on BART.

There are a lot of people questioning whether BART really needs its own police, or whether the public would be better served if BART drew its police from the cities where the system operates. They point to procedural errors during the search as well as the well-publicized 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant as evidence that BART’s training and oversight are inadequate. On the other hand, there are obvious potential problems with using civic police forces for BART work. Questions of jurisdiction spring to mind, as do financial and staffing concerns (case in point: Oakland is seriously short of police already; seconding officers to BART would be a huge burden on the city.)

Then there are the protesters who are demanding that the BART police be disarmed. Obviously, they say, if the police don’t have guns, they can’t shoot anyone. Problem solved!

Do I even need to point out the flaw in this plan? I suppose I do, since they’re proposing it with straight faces. It’s the same reason that civic police carry guns: criminals won’t give up their weapons if the police don’t have guns. I’m not going to start a gun control debate here, but until there’s some actual evidence that unilateral disarmament reduces crime, I’m going to regard all such proposals with scorn.

I don’t have a simple solution to BART’s police problem, but it seems obvious to me that the answer lies somewhere in the realm of improving the organization’s processes and training, whether on their own or as part of another group.