Bay Bridge Still…

The Bay Bridge frolics continue…

Matier and Ross reported a couple of days ago that, even though the eastern span of the bridge has been open since September of 2013, there are still 170 Caltrans staff and consultants working on the bridge full time. Or, given Caltrans’ collective aversion to documenting what people working on the bridge are doing, maybe it would be more accurate to say that 170 people are still being paid for jobs related to the bridge.

That sounds worse than it actually is. There is still work going on, after all. Not just repairs–though as we know, there are a few of those going on–but also the demolition of the old bridge. But transportation planners are upfront about the real reason many of those people are still on the job. M&R quote one unnamed source as saying “They got nowhere to go.” Until new projects come along–and funding is on the decline–they stay put, doing, something or other. Presumably.

Caltrans apparently has never heard of temporary positions and layoffs are not even being considered..

Still, one Caltrans employee will be transitioning off the Bay Bridge project. Our buddy Jaxon Van Derbeken reports that Tony Anziano, the former top official will be reassigned to other projects. Yes, this is the same Tony Anziano that the California Highway Patrol determined had mishandled engineers’ complaints about bad welds. That’s apparently the extent of the “management shakeup” that was supposed to follow the CHP’s investigation.

Mark DeSaulnier, told Jaxon he was disappointed. “The biggest problem with that bridge is that nobody has ever been held accountable.” Hey, Mark, you were the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Committee until last month. Did you consider using your position to change that culture of unaccountability? Jaxon, did you ask the former state senator what he intends to do to improve Caltrans’ culture once he takes his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives?

The bridge also has some problems unrelated to construction. The Chron’s Vivian Ho has pointed out that several of the palm trees planted next to the eastern approach are showing signs of disease, and one has died. According to MTC architectural coordinator Clive Endress, a five to ten percent mortality rate is an “industry standard”. Certainly one of thirty-seven is well below that range; if the pink rot can be controlled without losing any more trees, Caltrans will be off the hook there.

Clive, who is the person who selected the palms for their “dramatic visual quality”, also pointed out that other species of trees have their own unique diseases, implying that Caltrans would be dealing with similar issues even if he had chosen a native species.

Granted, even if all of the trees died, it wouldn’t be a disaster on the scale of the Bolt Botch and assorted welding screwups, but it would have been nice if some aspect of the Bay Bridge project could have been free of problems and controversy.

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?

BBBB: Extra Innings

Finally, some significant action on the Bay Bridge.

There’s been a steady stream of small items–well, small when compared against the bridge’s $6 billion price tag–but nothing with any, you should excuse the expression, earthshaking implications. Until now.

But let’s do this chronologically to make sure we don’t leave out anything important.

Except as noted, all of my information comes from Jaxon Van Derbeken’s articles in the SF Chronicle. Yay for Jaxon!

On June 9, Jaxon reported that state documents show that Caltrans paid “millions of dollars over the original bid price” and accepted responsibility for the delays caused by rework. Put another way, in public Caltrans was blaming the problems on contractors, but privately accepting liability. Sweet deal for the contractors, huh? Those millions of dollars included payment for repair and rework, settlements for delays in approving work, and in at least one case, training for contractor’s employees. The workers didn’t show up for the training, but does it really matter? It only cost Caltrans $500,000 of toll revenue, after all. Heck, all of those cost overruns and special payments will come out of toll money. At least the costs of building the bridge, covering up the defects, and rebuilding it to fix the defects are being covered by the people using the bridge instead of taxpayers across the state. Way to show fiscal responsibility, Caltrans.

Next, on July 11, we learned of more problems and their accompanying price tag. Tiny particles of steel are embedded in the bridge’s white paint. Those particles are rusting; that causes structural damage, but more importantly, it makes the signature $6 billion bridge look grimy. Can’t have that. The steel particles are present as the result of grinding parts during assembly. It’s common practice to put down plastic sheets to protect surfaces around grinding work, but Caltrans elected not to do so, citing possible risk to motorists on the old bridge if one of the sheets got loose. That’s another $500,000 dollars of toll money being spent on remedial work that could have been avoided with proper oversight and planning.

Let us move on to July 24, when the bridge’s chief designer told the bridge oversight committee that it’s safe to leave the 2,000 bolts and rods in place. He’s apparently basing his recommendation on the the tests Caltrans has been conducting since last year. Those tests are still going on, but apparently Mr. Nader is confident that the tests won’t uncover any problems. Isn’t assuming the result of testing how we got into this mess in the first place? Over and over we’ve heard that tests weren’t done or the result of testing can’t be found. How about just this once we finish the planned testing before we start making recommendations?

That brings to the latest news. According to an unsigned editorial in today’s paper, state Senator Mark DeSaulnier is calling for a federal criminal investigation into the bridge’s construction to determine “where the money went”. I gave kudos to Senator DeSaulnier last September for calling for a discussion of what went wrong. On the other hand, back in May when the concept of grease caps came up, he jumped on the “no more testing, just grease everything” bandwagon. I said at the time, “Hey Senator…focus on finding out who dropped the ball in the first place.” Looks like he listened to me.

So stick around the ballpark. The Bay Bridge Bolt Botch Blame Game is heading into extra innings. It ain’t over until Yogi Berra sings.