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Bay Bridge Debacle: The race against time: Part 1

The second hearing for “lessons learned” about the Bay Bridge was held January 24, 2014 and concentrated on the problems in the planning and building process. Senator Mark DeSaulnier, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, conducted the hearings. His goal was to review what happened during this project and hopefully apply lessons learned to future mega projects. In the second article, there will be a discussion of how the High-Speed Rail project, in a race for time as well, is closely following the same unfortunate path of the Bay Bridge Project.

There is no doubt the complex subject matter of engineering standards and materials made this a difficult project to analyze but in the end even the most non-technical layman will come to understand how inappropriate the situation was during the project’s life.

Bay Bridge History:

The Loma Prieta earthquake occurred in October 1989. It was 1995 before Caltrans began design work. In 2001, then Caltrans Director Jeff Morales, now CEO of the high-speed rail project, told the legislature while the cost had risen from $1.462 to $2.747 billion he assured them it was a “high-end number.”

Construction began in January 2002, cracks were discovered in the 2009 on the existing east span of the Bay Bridge. Will Kempton was the Caltrans Director at the time. It took 11 years before he bolt issues were publicly disclosed in March 2013. The project finished in September 2013, 24 years after the collapse of the bridge.

While traffic began to use the bridge in the fall of 2013, retrofitting began immediately. Through the years the toll fees rose from $1 to $6, certainly some of that rise could be directly attributed to the overspending of this project. DeSaulnier commented during the hearing that they needed to regain the public’s trust after this project.

By the project completion the cost grew from its original estimate of $1.4 to 5.4 billion and counting principal and interest it will be $13 billion of public dollars spent. In comparison the High-Speed Rail project has more than doubled their estimate without any construction in earnest. Present estimates for that project is $68 billion, will soon change when the business plan is published this spring.

Here’s how the study of the Bay Bridge began.

According to the Preliminary Report, “The Senate on behalf of the chairman of the committee hired an investigative reporter, Roland De Wolk, to produce a comprehensive timeline and review from the Loma Prieta earthquake to the new span’s opening in September of 2013. Mr. De Wolk’s report describes a number of potential issues and concerns with the construction of the bridge.

This hearing will focus on these issues, attempting to use them to highlight the underlying problems within the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and state government generally that allowed these issues to occur in the first place.”

During the hearings, this is the second of two, and in private interviews, past Caltrans employees and consultants explained the history of cover-up in the building of the bridge. These issues effected people’s lives and livelihood. In the end, the consultants and engineers thought the bridge was safe but would be subject perhaps to more maintenance work if components failed. Senator DeSaulnier as did others believe, “The overriding theme was driven by the race against time. “

Transparency Issues:

The underlying problem was the attitude of senior managers toward the Public Records Act. Engineers were told not to put anything in writing, not paper or email, communicate orally to avoid issues from being discovered through the public records act. The “draft” excuse was used liberally as a way to avoid disclose to the public.

Caltrans blamed the long length of time to retrieve public records requests on disorganization of records, lack of technology but considering the overall attitude toward the Public Records Act, it is no surprise that some requests took as long as 7 months to receive.

It was thought that the atmosphere caused “a general lack of transparency created the fertile ground for project managers to make decisions largely outside of the view of the public, its elected representatives, and the press.”

Bay Bridge Engineering Issues:

The Caltrans organization was thought to be political, headed by non-engineering experts. Panel one included a former Caltrans engineering geologist, Mike Morgan; clearly aware of the importance of his testimony was overcome by emotion when it was his turn to speak. He had to pause for a moment to compose himself, which only added to his credibility. He explained how he told his management time after time about the errors being made.

When he spoke out about the inadequacy of testing the concrete pours for the pilings that holds up much of the bridge, he was told by Caltrans supervisors “If you bring up problems that are politically distasteful-stop a project dead in its tracks- you become the problem.” It was disclosed at the committee hearing, that the saying at Caltrans was, “that you don’t go after the trouble, you go after the troublemaker.”

Morgan gave testimony how he sent the Audit department a 100 page report, anonymously. The Audit Committee would not address anonymous complaints.

A name kept coming up during the review and in the preliminary report. It was Program Manager Tony Anziano, who did not have an engineering license and who according to testimony injected himself into the engineering process. According to those who reported to him, he refused to allow more testing when it was recommended. The engineers had ethical concerns and hanging over them the possible loss of professional licenses knowing of these issues and yet not having them addressed.

Example: Senior Principal Engineer James Merrill, who worked for a Quality Assurance company named MACTEC. Merrill knew the terms of the contract that Caltrans had with ABF/ZPMC in China where the materials for the bridge were being built. “No welding cracks” was an absolute standard. Merrill stated, “We found hundreds of cracks,” and those were positive sightings with the naked eye. More sophisticated quality assurance tests would reveal more. MACTEC rejected the metal panels. His Caltrans supervisors told him he was being, “too rigorous” in his findings.

The Materials Engineering and Testing Services (METS) group, a part of Caltrans. They were separated from the quality oversight and construction in order to help avoid conflicts of interest. The METS branch, headed by Deputy Division Chief Philip Stolarski, agreed with the MACTEC weld findings and offered his observation. "For the Chinese, the weld standards were 'suggestions,' but for Caltrans, they were a binding agreement."

Another 25-year veteran with Caltrans, Douglas Coe, who worked side by side with MACTEC and Merrill also experienced the same issues. According to the preliminary report “the hundreds of cracks mounted into the thousands.” He said normally they would have stopped production of the panels but he said he felt “the pressure not to stop.” Coe was eventually transferred to a lessor job, after a final run in with the Chinese company regarding the poor job they were doing. That was the company who later took over the quality assurance role from MACTEC.

James Merrill, a top engineer, from MACTEC was unhappy with what was going on and dared to put his complaints in writing. Douglas Coe warned him about putting his complaints in writing against the wishes of Anziano. Sounding like something straight out of the Sopranos, he told Merrill, “Anybody who went against Tony, didn’t stick around.” Coe continued, and expressed his anger, “This was the first time in my career that engineering wasn’t allowed to be done right. This is the first time engineering decisions were made by non-engineers.”

Essentially the licensed engineers were powerless to enforce their own professional recommendations.

Caltrans executives told the quality assurance people to report directly to the construction team, headed by Principal Construction Manager Peter Siegenthaler and program Manager Tony Anziano. “Merrill stated the project management was more concerned with staying on schedule than anything else.”

The quality assurance engineers were told where to test and were directed to areas that there were no problems instead of areas the engineers knew would be prone to problems. The employees and consultants were told to keep quiet. They had enough reports and they were not going to do additional reports.

Renewal of a contract for the Quality Assurance aspect of the project with MACTEC was terminated after a 10-year life. That firm had been previously told they would stay on the project through the lifetime of the project because of their long-standing involvement. Though the extension was never guaranteed, it is suspected it was for the trouble that the personnel were causing Caltrans and the China sub-contractor.

The Steel content: A Metallurgists view

The quality assurance was said to be “abysmal” according to Metallurgist Lisa Thomas. She thought limited knowledge of metallurgy at the agency was a key issue, a situation which she still believes exists today. It was revealed later in the panel that others had an education in Metallurgy.

There were specific rods that sat in marine water for 5 years, which created a molecular change that eventually caused the rods to break.

Only those who sat in water had these issues yet Caltrans looked at the manufacturing process not the physical conditions the failed rods were in. Thomas said the metal rods were strong, perhaps too strong and caused shattering, a condition called “hydrogen embrittlement.” The strength of the rods and the conditions that they were in were like “Kryptonite to Superman.” She said Caltrans made “the wrong metallurgic decisions, the wrong analysis and came to the wrong conclusions.”

Panel 2- Heminger, Dougherty and Anziano

Senator DeSaulnier heard panel 2 next and it included the management, Steve Heminger Chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight committee (TBPOC) as well as Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the current Caltrans Director, Malcolm Dougherty and the Tony Anziano, Caltrans Toll Bridge Program Manager.

DeSaulnier opened by saying Anziano was mentioned many times in the preliminary report and there were very serious concerns and if correct in DeSaulnier’s words, “willful and deliberate attempts to avoid the public records act. “ Most of the pointed questions were aimed at Anziano who denied all the allegations made by the witnesses on panel one. Anziano was asked about documentation several times and only once did he say he had some written evidence he could provide the committee, which seemed to confirm his aversion to formal documentation.

Anziano did not recall refusing to retest key building materials. He denied that he told people not to write things down in order to avoid the public records act compliance. He denied he had anything to do with not awarding a quality assurance company who documented the engineering issues. He denied reassigning a Caltrans employee, Douglas Coe, to a lessor position for telling the agency that their testing was substandard as well as stating that the CEO of the new quality assurance subcontractor was lying.

The hearing was riddled with technical terms, which made it difficult at times for the committee and public to get deeply into the subject matter. But DeSaulnier, a confessed history major, did quite well as he quizzed panel 2 and demonstrated his knowledge of the complex material.

The Senator showed his extreme concerning the abuse of the public records act and the importance of the public’s right to know. Besides discussing the general attitude about non-compliance with the public records act, another major factor was the fact that the Steve Heminger, who is the director of TBPOC, received an exemption from the Legislature not to allow the public to attend their meetings. Heminger explained that it was because they were talking about contracts and they would be constantly being going into closed session.

At the end of the hearing, Senator DeSaulnier addressed the second panel and said, “ I don’t believe you.” The Senator said he knew the rules about being innocent until proven guilty in this country but perhaps he was following Roman law. He said he did not find it credible that former employees and consultants would come forward before a Senate committee and testify and not tell the truth. He invited the members of Panel 2 to keep trying to change his mind and come forward with evidence that documents their side of the story.

Senator DeSaulnier in closing reminded the audience and the panel of the introduction to the California Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Law. “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” – From the Introduction to California’s Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Law.

Preliminary Recommendations: Listed here are only a few recommendations, all eleven are listed on page 38 of the Preliminary Report.

· No public agency should be exempt from basic government laws such as the Brown Act and the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting law.

· Public employees should have a secure place to bring their concerns, complaints and above all their safety issues. They should not fear retribution, reprisal or replacement.

· Communications of any official nature should be not just allowed but encouraged to be in some permanent media such as writing.

The third hearing on Lessons learned about the Bay Bridge and Reforming Caltrans is scheduled to be heard on February 11, 2014, Room 112 at 1:30 pm both Caltrans and the Legislative Analyst’s office will be in attendance.

Here is the preliminary report. (metallurgical report)

Kathy Hamilton has written two hundred and three articles concerning the High-Speed Rail Authority. See a brief synopsis by date and title on her site:

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