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Passing the buck on Bay Bridge

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POSTED August 10, 2014 10:27 p.m.



“Who is responsible for the Bay Bridge?” I asked California Gov. Jerry Brown at a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting in May.

Before Brown’s 2010 election victory, which made him the boss of all Caltrans, Brown was the mayor of Oakland whose political posturing helped delay the retrofit of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, made necessary after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down a chunk of the span. It took 24 years and $5 billion more than the original budget for the state to complete the $6.4 billion span. Before the new span even opened, the retrofit needed a retrofit.

Brown answered: “The engineers.”

When pressed, the governor acknowledged he, too, is responsible. He added: “Life isn’t perfect. ... Or as I once said, ‘s—- happens.’”

The engineers again were in the hot seat Tuesday when state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier presided over a hearing on the bungled Bay Bridge construction.

In addition to the Caltrans officials, there should have been a few Bay Area politicians on that panel, too. After the 1994 Northridge quake, GOP Gov. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles politicians brokered a deal that got needed bridge repairs done in 66 days.

Not so for the Bay Bridge. There was no sense of urgency among then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown or his colleagues in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville. They were so busy advocating bike paths, public-transit studies and a tony design that they allowed nine years to pass before a design was approved. The engineers were stuck with the thankless job of making it work — and pronto, because they understood they had to beat the next...

Big One.

They’re still reeling over bad press. Last year, 32 of 96 key anchor rods cracked when tightened. Steel was left to stew in water. Professionals who voiced concerns — about, say, cracks in welds — claim they were punished. These errors are not the work of politicians.

I can’t say the engineers dazzled on Tuesday. Caltrans suits repeatedly asserted that the new bridge is safe. State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly testified the new span is safer than the old structure “by at least a factor of two.”

“It should be safe. And it should be a lot safer than the old bridge,” DeSaulnier railed. “By a factor of two? That’s still less than what we paid for.”

DeSaulnier held the hearing to ask officials about a report his committee commissioned by former investigative reporter Roland De Wolk. (De Wolk is a friend of mine, but I had started writing on this fiasco long before DeSaulnier hired him.)

The De Wolk report named nine professionals who reported problems to higher-ups, for which they believed they were “gagged and banished.”

Project head Tony Anziano told De Wolk that he transferred one by-the-book engineer because it’s a mistake to go to war with a contractor. “It will cost you time; it will cost more money; and it will not resolve the problems that you are arguing about, ultimately.” Given that the retrofit span already needs a retrofit, however, it would seem the whistle-blowers should have been rewarded, not marginalized.

There are other issues — such as the Caltrans official who retired and then went to work for a quality assurance firm that won the Bay Bridge contract. His firm replaced a competitor who reported “hundreds of cracks” in deck welds, despite specifications that there be none.

The governor likes to portray himself as a tightwad who wants to get good value for taxpayer dollars. Yet Brown has been remarkably uncurious about the bad decisions that led to cost overruns. Regular commuters pay an extra $1,000 a year in higher tolls to pay for bridge work; Brown seems to be Zen with that. He just wishes the press would accept that post-construction glitches are part of nature.

The engineers are responsible? It so happens Neel Kashkari, Brown’s Republican opponent in the November election, has two degrees in engineering. “The delays, the cost overruns, the fact that people were dissuaded or ignored,” Kashkari told me, “all of those things speak to a culture of mismanagement.”

Though the signature design made the 2.2-mile span more complicated than your average bridge, its glitch-rich rollout does not bode well for California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, which Brown hopes will seal his legacy as a visionary.

Kashkari calls high-speed rail the “crazy train” and wants to stop it: “Can you imagine the complexities, the cost overruns, the mismanagement if they actually try to build a 400-mile train?”

Yes, I can.

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