Newspaper Says Caltrans Found Problems With Tests

August 7, 2012

A California Department of Transportation engineering team has uncovered a broader range of problems with the safety testing of roadways and bridges in California, including tests of work performed on the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, The Sacramento Bee reported Sunday.

After engineers in December started reviewing records of the tests, they found doctored data and other suspicious information, the newspaper said.

Engineers were looking into a technician blamed for falsifying tests on other projects but found problems that extended beyond that former employee. The information also called into question testing of the new Bay Bridge and three other key Bay Area spans.

The assessment follows assertions by department officials that their tests were valid and that the Bay Bridge is safe.

It identified at least 23 cases of suspect radiation test data used to approve the reinforced concrete foundations of the Bay Bridge, Benicia-Martinez Bridge, Dumbarton Bridge and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, according to state and federal reports and emails.

The engineers said the records for those spans should be analyzed further. Those 23 cases are among 1,000 files of Caltrans roadway and bridge tests deemed questionable.

Caltrans launched its review of data after the Bee’s investigation last fall found that a technician who conducted tests to determine the structural integrity of the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge had falsified tests on other projects.

In an email response to written questions from the Bee, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said no bridges or other structures “have been found to be unsound thus far in our review.” Rocco said “the Bay Bridge is safe.”

Still, according to the Bee, the Federal Highway Administration criticized Caltrans for waiting several years to launch a review of the testing program.

The Bee obtained federal and state reports and emails from the administration through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said in a statement issued Sunday that the data cited by the newspaper were taken from a preliminary, draft work product.

“It is irresponsible and premature to draw any conclusions from the data at this time,” he said, adding that the department intended to release its findings to the public and its federal partners when the audit is complete.

In his first public comments about the testing controversy last week, Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed concerns about the Bay Bridge.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who chairs the Senate transportation committee, has scheduled a public hearing Aug. 14 to address Caltrans testing issues.

“I’m determined, as is the committee, to get to the truth. These are huge investments in public safety, and if they are not making the public safer, I want to know why. And we are going to find out,” DeSaulnier told the Bee. “We will be as relentless and tenacious as required.”

The hearings will focus on the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge. That foundation comprises 13 reinforced concrete piles that reach into bedrock under the bay.

Because of questions raised about the radiation and sonic testing of the piles, some independent experts have suggested further analysis should be conducted.

Caltrans officials have repeatedly said that the 13 piles of the tower foundation were tested properly and that the bridge is safe.

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