Caltrans Officials Deny Retribution for Reports on Bay Bridge Problems

By JULIET WILLIAMS | August 7, 2014

Senior state transportation officials on Tuesday acknowledged serious problems, including a culture of secrecy, during construction of the $6.5 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. But they denied that employees were reassigned or lost their contracts after raising red flags about inferior construction work.

“Yes, mistakes were made,” Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly testified during a legislative hearing. “Building a bridge like this is a human endeavor. Human beings are fallible, and that fallibility was evident on this project as on any major infrastructure project.”

Kelly and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty told lawmakers on the Senate Transportation Committee that they take seriously a critical investigative report that found leaders who oversaw bridge construction repeatedly brushed off criticism about flawed welding, bolts and other engineering. They both pledged to address problems identified in the report but sought to reassure the public that the bridge is safe.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, the committee chairman, accused senior leaders of “writing off … the people who’ve come forward” with concerns about construction flaws, secrecy and retribution. He said it reflects an ongoing problem within Caltrans.

“You’re in denial about the challenge of the culture that has been brought up by some people, not just in this project,” DeSaulnier said. “Forgive me for being somewhat skeptical.”

Nathan Lindell, an engineer for lead contractor American Bridge-Fluor, testified that he was deeply concerned after finding cracks in the welding on the two steel bridge decks he was sent to inspect at a Shanghai factory. He disagreed with a characterization by Caltrans officials that he and the other whistle-blowers cited in the report were disgruntled.

“I have no ax to grind; I have no personal benefit,” he said. “However, I do question why the rules were changed” to make the scrutiny less rigorous for a foreign contractor than they would have been in the U.S.

“What you got for your money was not what was originally specified in that original contract,” he said.

Dougherty acknowledged “very visible breakdowns” in quality assurance and said he is concerned that so many engineers who worked on the bridge were dissatisfied with the project’s outcome.

Kelly asked the California Highway Patrol to investigate the alleged wrongdoing on the project for potential criminal charges or violations such as breaking the state’s whistleblower laws. He said Tuesday that he expects to receive that report by the end of the month.

None of the dozens of people interviewed for the Senate report said the bridge is unsafe, although some questioned whether its projected 150-year lifespan is reasonable.

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