Agency Finds No Retaliation Over Bay Bridge Safety Concerns

By JULIET WILLIAMS | October 6, 2014

Caltrans did not retaliate against employees who raised concerns about construction defects on the new $6.5 billion span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but a pattern of mismanagement and poor communication within the department led employees to believe their concerns would be ignored or they might be punished for raising them, a California Highway Patrol report released Friday said.

The report concluded that Caltrans did not violate the state’s whistleblower laws, but it criticized Caltrans officials for failing to document problems related to construction or employees’ work.

“Poor organizational communication fueled or precipitated many of the issues experienced on this project,” including a failure to set clear goals, the report said. “This lack of a unified purpose resulted in frustration and confusion through all levels of the project organization.”

An investigative report requested by lawmakers earlier this year found that officials who oversaw bridge construction from 2007 to 2011 repeatedly brushed off criticism about flawed welding, bolts and other engineering work.

Senior state transportation officials acknowledged there were serious problems, including a culture of secrecy, during construction, but they denied during legislative hearings that employees were reassigned or lost their contracts after raising red flags about inferior construction work.

California Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly requested the CHP investigation after those concerns were raised. Thirteen CHP investigators interviewed more than 50 witnesses for the report, which did not investigate the actual bridge construction.

Kelly said the report identified serious management shortfalls in communication, documentation, transparency and following policy, including a failure to comply with state requirements for annual employee performance evaluations. Kelly said he has asked the head of Caltrans to make management changes by Dec. 1, including cutting staff.

“The CHP report reflects the fact that we have more improvements to make – and we will,” Kelly said in a written statement.

Among the questions the CHP was asked to investigate was whether a private contractor hired to ensure quality assurance was replaced because its officials criticized Caltrans management for their lack of concern about defects in the steel panels being made by a private firm in China. Another firm was hired, and a senior Caltrans official then left the state to work for the other contractor.

The investigation found that the agency was within its rights to replace the firm, but again failed to communicate its rationale to staff, creating suspicion and mistrust. The concerns were exacerbated by a program manager who avoided using email, which some employees believed was done to avoid creating a paper trail about problems.

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