Newspaper Raises Questions about Bay Bridge Panel

March 27, 2012

A report in the Sacramento Bee is raising some questions about the panel that evaluated the work on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Three of the four members of the Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel have professional or financial ties to Caltrans, or to contractors who worked on the bridge, while three helped select the Bay Bridge design, the newspaper reported Sunday.

The panel released its findings Friday, declaring work by the California Department of Transportation as correct and that the bridge was safe.

The Bee said the panel’s review came after reports last fall that a Caltrans employee had fabricated integrity tests on other structures, and failed to ensure accuracy while examining the foundation of the new span’s main tower.

Joseph Nicoletti, chairman of the four-member panel, wrote in the report that the foundation piles for the main tower were “designed, constructed, and tested in a way that meets or exceeds the state-of-practice and will result in a safe and reliable performance of the bridge.”

But the Bee said that members of the panel drew nearly all of their conclusions from material prepared or managed by Caltrans.

Bee reporter Charles Piller spoke to experts in the field of government ethics, who said the panel lacked the impartiality necessary to be perceived by the public as unbiased.

Paula A. Franzese, a law and ethics professor at Seton Hall University in Newark, N.J., who advises state and local governments, described the panel’s practices as “a significant departure from standard ethical canons.”

A call to Caltrans seeking comment on the report was not immediately returned Sunday.

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