State Senator: Caltrans Took Unnecessary Risks With Bay Bridge
Update: KQED’s Dan Brekke reports from the meeting today in which Caltrans described its intended solution for the problem of fracturing steel bolts that have plagued the building of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
“Caltrans engineers said they’ve developed a solution that involves a ‘saddle’ — sort of a rubber band made of steel cables — that will wrap around the area affected by these broken steel rods and will allow the shear key structures, which are designed to absorb seismic movements, to operate as intended. The saddle will be held in place by very large anchors and wrapped in concrete.”
Caltrans said the fix will cost as much as $10 million. Caltrans still hopes to open the bridge as scheduled over Labor Day weekend.
Later today, Caltrans is expected to say how it plans to deal with some flawed steel components installed in the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. After a series of reports from the San Francisco Chronicle revealed the agency ordered rods made from a kind of steel not recommended for use in bridges, many Californians are asking whether the $6.4 billion bridge will be safe to drive on, let alone open for Labor Day as promised.
The California Report’s Rachael Myrow talked to state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Contra Costa County. He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
MARK DESAULNIER: This is the largest public works project in the history of the state — the largest, in fact, west of the Mississippi. So, having been involved with it for a long time — being a former Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner and having voted on this design when I was in that position — this was always sold as a safety issue. We’re trying to make sure what happened during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, that when that earthquake hits again that this bridge will be able to sustain that. So it’s always been about safety. At this point, having spent $5.3 billion more than what we were told we were going to spend, I think it’s really important that we make sure it’s safe and we quantify to some degree what we get for paying all that money.
MYROW: Are you confident, senator, that Caltrans knows what it’s doing?
DESAULNIER: Obviously, there was a mistake made on the fasteners that The Chronicle has talked about. There was a mistake made on the bolts, and they have pretty much admitted those mistakes. So, both of those things certainly erode your level of confidence.
MYROW: Do you think this agency has a systemic problem with quality control?
DESAULNIER: I think there’s a definite cultural problem at Caltrans. I’ve run a number of bills, including one last year to create an inspector general’s division, which other states have. New York has had one for some time, and it’s just had the ability to have outside experts keep a close eye on the Department of Transportation. I was not able to convince the administration to sign that bill. I have another one this year that would move some existing audit functions from under the director of Caltrans to the California Transportation Commission that would, I believe, provide a greater level of accountability and more transparency.
MYROW: Are you at all worried that basically we’re going to have a $6.5 billion bike path in a few months?
DESAULNIER: There is a joke, which I don’t find too funny, about the world’s longest and most expensive fishing pier. My hope is that we will get this bridge open on time, or close to on time. We do know that the existing bridge is not safe. This has always been a race against time since 1989, when Loma Prieta happened. So, it’s really important that we focus on safety.
MYROW: Beyond the global embarrassment of the media coverage and the questions being asked about the safety of the new bridge, do you see any sanctions in the future for Caltrans employees or leadership?
DESAULNIER: I think people have to be held accountable. We all expect that in our own jobs, whatever they may be. So, we need to make sure the bridge is safe. Then we have to go back and find out why these mistakes were made and make sure there’s corrective action, and part of that corrective action is to hold people accountable.
MYROW: You’ve had the opportunity, sitting on the Senate Transportation Committee, to really dig into the details in a way that a lot of civilians really haven’t. Is there a particular question that’s burning for you about how the decision to use this kind of steel was made and then how it wasn’t questioned as folks rolled forward with it?
DESAULNIER: I think there’s a really interesting analogy in the aerospace field. After the Challenger disaster the Reagan administration put something together called the Rogers Commission — very, really interesting for discovering that sometimes there’s an acceptance institutionalized in these large organizations for safety risks that you shouldn’t take, and I think that that’s analogous to this situation. I think a lot of good people took risks that they probably shouldn’t have. They didn’t follow written protocol, and now we are at the end of this long road — hopefully close to the end — and we’re finding out that it’s going to cost more than it ever should have, and we’re not certain of the safety. So I think the larger issue is: What happens in these large public institutions? And transparency, I think, is the most important thing. The public should know what they’re doing and why they make changes.
MYROW: Senator, thank you for talking with us.
DESAULNIER: You’re welcome. Thank you for asking.