Hearing examines possible problems in Bay Bridge’s construction

Michael Tao/File
A hearing facilitated by the chair of the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee explored possible lapses and oversights in the construction of the recently unveiled Bay Bridge.

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A state Senate committee recommended policy changes to the California Department of Transportation in a hearing Friday, after an investigation into several possible lapses in transparency and construction during the creation of the recently unveiled San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The hearing, initiated and facilitated by California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, explored the decisions involved in the building process that has expended about $6.3 billion over roughly 15 years. During the hearing, several former Caltrans employees brought up mistakes in the bridge’s construction, as outlined in a report commissioned by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, and claimed Caltrans managers had dismissed these problems when previously confronted with them.

James Merrill, an engineer from the quality assurance firm hired by Caltrans, said he recommended further testing of welds fraught with hundreds of cracks but was shot down for being “too rigorous.”

“There’s nothing rigorous about meeting the contract’s specifications,” said Caltrans civil engineer Douglas Coe, who had pointed out problems with the bridge and was eventually assigned to a different project, at the hearing.

“Anyone who went against (the program manager) didn’t stick around,” Coe wrote in the report, though program manager Tony Anziano replied that Coe’s reassignment was not a demotion.

Merrill and Coe claimed Caltrans discouraged them from putting their concerns in writing, which according to Merrill was so the company would avoid being subjected to the Public Records Act.

But Anziano replied he only discouraged employees from putting inaccurate information in writing.

The hearing also brought metallurgist Lisa Thomas to scrutinize precisely how 32 rods were exposed to the excess levels of hydrogen that caused them to break in March. Thomas criticized the type of steel chosen for the rods, saying that hydrogen is to this type of steel as “kryptonite is to Superman.” Merrill said Caltrans did not take his recommendation in 2008 that these rods be further tested.

Throughout the hearing, DeSaulnier questioned whether Caltrans sacrificed quality to finish the bridge faster, after experiencing severe delays.

But Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty maintained that engineers actually did more testing than necessary and questioned whether Merrill and Coe, who left the project years ago, are qualified to make judgments on the bridge’s safety.

“It’s fair to acknowledge that it has been a winding road to get here,” Dougherty said. “But we are here. We have achieved seismic safety for the bridge.”

Merrill said, as far as he knows, the bridge is safe, although it may need maintenance in the future.

UC Berkeley civil engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, who has studied both the old and new Bay Bridge for more than 20 years, disagrees, stating oversights throughout the construction process have made the Bay Bridge seismically unsafe.

“I will not cross that bridge, and my family will not,” Astaneh-Asl said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

During the hearing, the Senate recommended Caltrans comply with open meeting requirements, put information about future major projects online and establish an independent entity to oversee large projects. Another hearing, called “Reforming Caltrans,” is scheduled for Feb. 11.

Melissa Wen covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.