State senators will examine the effectiveness and independence of peer-review panels used to oversee major transportation projects at a Capitol hearing on Wednesday.
The hearing was called in response to a Bee investigation of a California Department of Transportation bridge-review panel, and over doubts about the adequacy of oversight for the planned high-speed rail system.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said that the hearing could help determine the need for new legislation to ensure that such panels operate with "the transparency required to give the public and the Legislature confidence" about oversight involving large public expenditures.
DeSaulnier said the state should aspire to "national and international best practices." Current panels, although they comprise respected experts, sometimes fall short of those standards, he said.
The Caltrans Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel the subject of the Bee investigation examines design and construction concerns for the new Bay Bridge. The public is barred from attending the group's meetings.
Minutes for the meetings, obtained under the California Public Records Act, show that the group usually met at the offices of T.Y. Lin International, lead designer of the bridge. Executives at T.Y. Lin or its partner, Moffatt & Nichol, usually recorded the minutes, which were printed on letterhead for the companies' design partnership.
Panelists also have enjoyed lucrative financial and professional ties to Caltrans and bridge contractors whose performance they are charged to evaluate.
Panel member Frieder Seible, a structural engineer and engineering dean at UC San Diego, has received Caltrans contracts worth about $19 million, including funds for professors under his purview, since 2003. The agency separately has paid Seible more than $1.4 million for his advice.
Most members of the four-person panel have participated in related Caltrans advisory bodies that helped select the bridge design and oversee wider seismic safety issues.
Seible, also a principal designer of the tower of the new Bay Bridge, has said that he has always sought to ensure that his expertise "benefits the people of California."
The panel evaluated the foundation of the tower after Bee reports exposed design and testing irregularities. The peer-review panel agreed with Caltrans' assertions that there was no problem, citing research conducted by Caltrans and work by a firm supervised by the agency. That firm also participated in design work for the foundation.
Outside experts have challenged the report's conclusions.
Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, noted earlier this year that panel members sometimes oppose Caltrans positions. "The public is extraordinarily well served" by the current peer-review process, he said.
The hearing will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday in room 4203 of the State Capitol.