Legislature to examine Caltrans testing of Bay Bridge

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012 - 6:48 pm

Caltrans fired two employees who were implicated in problems involving the tests of the Bay Bridge and other freeway structures throughout California, as reported in a Bee investigation Sunday.

Agency spokeswoman Tamie McGowen said last week that the employees had been placed on administrative leave, but said Monday that they actually were fired.

The fired employees are Duane Wiles, a former technician with the agency who tested foundations for bridges and other freeway structures, and Brian Liebich, chief of the agency's Foundation Testing Branch and Wiles' supervisor.

The leaders of the California Senate and Assembly committees on transportation said they would hold separate hearings later this month to examine the issues raised in The Bee's report.

"It's a concern for anybody who sits behind the wheel. I was shocked when I learned about this mismanagement, and I have a lot of questions about the issue, and I expect to follow up and get a lot of answers," said Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Assembly Committee on Transportation.

Her comments came in response to revelations in The Bee investigation, which documented three test fabrications and numerous other errors by Wiles, casting doubt on his data on dozens of freeway structures across the state. Those include the main tower of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, scheduled for completion in 2013.

Caltrans officials have insisted that the Bay Bridge and all other structures tested by Wiles are safe, but so far have declined to release documents that validate their assertions.

Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said he would hold a hearing about the safety of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, and how the Caltrans testing process broke down. He said the focus would be ensuring that no similar problems emerge in the future.

"We'll do our due diligence, and we have time before the bridge opens to make sure it's safe," DeSaulnier said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose district includes much of the Bay Bridge, also expressed concern.

"Leader Pelosi believes that safety of our infrastructure must be the number one priority of Caltrans," said Carlos Sanchez, Pelosi's deputy press secretary. "Our office has already reached out to Caltrans and (the Federal Highway Administration) to seek a full explanation of what occurred and what will be done to assure the safety of the traveling public now and in the future."

The Bee examined about 50,000 internal Caltrans documents – including data, test reports and personnel files. They showed that Caltrans officials knew about the testing problems for years, but failed to conduct a comprehensive investigation despite public safety concerns raised by insiders.

Their efforts were hampered by a long-standing practice by Wiles and other technicians to discard raw data files that are the most effective way to detect fabrications.

The Bee's reporting raised questions about the structural integrity of the new Bay Bridge that are difficult to answer, according to independent experts. They said the bridge is probably reliable, as it was overbuilt to withstand even the largest anticipated quake. But some uncertainty remains, and they urged further review.

Gov. Jerry Brown's office referred questions to Caltrans, and Caltrans did not respond to repeated requests for information on Monday.

Caltrans acting Director Malcolm Dougherty and Tony Anziano, the agency's toll bridge program manager, disputed some aspects of The Bee's Sunday report during an interview on KQED Radio in San Francisco.

The Bee reported that Caltrans' investigation into Wiles' work was called "cursory" and "inconclusive," by its chief author. That Caltrans engineer said in an email obtained by The Bee that his own work "barely scratches the surface of what could reasonably be called a thorough or comprehensive search for falsified data."

Dougherty said his agency had conducted additional studies on Wiles' work that proved the safety of all structures he tested, contrary to earlier statements by Caltrans officials. But Caltrans did not respond to Bee requests for copies of those reports.

Anziano disputed Bee findings, verified by Caltrans records, that Wiles was responsible for testing seven foundation piles for the main tower of the new Bay Bridge eastern span. He said Wiles tested six piles – three by himself and three with another technician.

Another issue of concern involved supplementary testing conducted on the structures tested by Wiles. Caltrans earlier told The Bee that it had no records of sonic tests – a backup to the radiation testing conducted on most of the piles in question.

Anziano said on KQED Monday that "most" of the piles tested by Wiles were examined by a contractor using the sonic technique, and showed favorable results. He said Caltrans would obtain those documents from a contractor.

Lowenthal said that her committee would demand proof from the agency that it had not mishandled its testing responsibilities.

"We will have backup for any assertions made on structural integrity," she said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Charles Piller



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