EDITORIAL: Is the Bay Bridge safe?

July 4, 2014 

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Weld cracks are the latest in the litany of errors and construction problems regarding the new span, at left, of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge that have steadily emerged in recent years.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO — ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

From its outward appearance, the gleaming new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a marvel and an architectural wonder. But as we have learned since November 2011, its construction was troubled and oversight was deeply flawed.

For more than 30 months, Sacramento Bee reporter Charles Piller has been digging into what happened during the construction of the $6.5 billion span, which replaced the double-deck eastern section that failed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

On June 22, Piller disclosed how the company approved by Caltrans to provide critical welds was unqualified and did shoddy work. Rather than reject the cracked welds, Caltrans relaxed its standards.

Almost beyond belief, the state had turned to a China-based company for welds, rather than buying American steel and employing U.S. steelworkers. Caltrans tries to justify the decision by saying the Chinese company was brought on by the bridge's main contractor.

But Caltrans awarded the contracts and ultimately is responsible. It is clear that, in its rush to just get the bridge done, the agency glossed over all sorts of considerations, from the subcontractor's experience to the simple optics of outsourcing such a crucial piece of such an iconic project.

Officials made a blundered decision in a darkened room where no one was willing to stand up and ask the fundamental question: What are you doing?

Piller has reported many details, some of which would be funny, if public safety and $6.5 billion in public funds weren't at stake. There was, for example, the inspector who used duct tape to keep water away from the rusting innards of the bridge.

In fact, some of the most basic flaws in the construction process were written into laws by legislators who should have known better. A much-needed 2005 bill by then-Assembly Member Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, jump-started the long-delayed construction.

But the bill exempted the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee from having to comply with California's basic open-meetings laws. If the committee had met in the light of day, perhaps its members wouldn't have made bad decisions, such as relaxing strict standards for welds, and doing business with a company halfway around the world that had never built a bridge before this project.

Caltrans has tried to be more open lately than when Piller first started his reporting. But it needs to end its defensive crouch, find world-class engineers and scientists who don't have conflicts of interest, and pay them to review the work.

As we did in 2011, we urge Gov. Jerry Brown to insist that there be a full and independent investigation to determine whether the bridge can withstand a massive earthquake, which was the point of spending $6.5 billion in the first place.

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