Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

Viewpoints: Caltrans only looks worse having attempted to discredit messenger

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

They should call it the ODTAA Bridge: One damn thing after another. It's gotten so bad that regaining the narrative on the Bay Bridge fiasco is nearly overwhelming.

By the time Charles Piller's first investigative piece ran in The Bee in November 2011, seven years had passed since inspectors first uncovered corrosion problems on crucial steel tendons for the bridge's skyway.

And for seven years they stayed silent. "We say nothing," a whistleblower would later tell Piller.

Some readers called Piller's initial entry a hit piece, a lie, or worse.

Predictably, Caltrans, sitting center stage in the construction controversy and consistently resistant to transparency, insisted its efforts would "result in a safe and reliable performance of the bridge."

But Piller persisted, and it's been ODTAA ever since. Even Caltrans is now shamed into mea culpas, recently announcing, for instance, that 32 galvanized bolts meant to secure key seismic safety equipment for the span had broken, and hundreds more were in doubt.

The bolts, manufactured to a standard known as A354-BD, were considered acceptable back when the bridge was being designed in the late 1990s. But agency engineers began raising concerns about their structural integrity, and in 2004, Caltrans banned the bolts, and then went and used them anyway, installing them beginning in 2008. Why? Because construction was already under way, and Caltrans had already ordered the first batches of A354-BD bolts.

"All the bridge design codes in the world say do not use these bolts," UC Berkeley structural engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh told KGO radio last Friday, in an alarming interview. "They become brittle, glass-like." Not using them in tectonically fragile San Francisco is just "Seismic 101."

Requirements changed, but sadly, Caltrans didn't.

"We bought it because that's what was called for in the plan," a Caltrans spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "If it turns out it needs to be replaced, we will replace it."

All 2,300 now installed? These bolts attach the main cables of the tower to the roadbed. Professor Astaneh believes every single one of them is defective. "There's a very high likelihood this bridge will collapse in even a moderate earthquake," he said.

There's a sort of a good, bad and ugly in all this. It's good that so many structural flaws are being unearthed before the bridge opens, before an unspeakable tragedy occurs.

The governor, who only weeks ago dismissed design flaws as "s--- happens," finally ordered an independent, systemwide review of Caltrans – all the more welcome given revelations last year of financial and professional conflicts among Peer Review Panel members who had declared the main tower foundation safe.

Bridge officials have repeatedly asserted that despite questions about the integrity of those 2,300 galvanized bolts, the new span is safer than driving on the old one.

"Any engineer who said that should lose his license," Astaneh said.

But that's the bad part. No one will lose their license, or their pension, or end up in jail. Few have been fired. Ultimately, only taxpayers will be on the hook for this mess – for a price tag that went from $1.5 billion under then-Gov. Pete Wilson to $6.4 billion today. Who knows what tomorrow brings.

And then there's the ugly: This looming deadline to open the bridge by Labor Day for a celebratory bash so politicians can photo-op while thousands walk across the span. Foolish enough to waste money on such frivolousness, but to have this lingering carrot-and-stick insistence that we do everything possible to ensure a timely opening suggests that political grandstanding is more important than public safety.

I'm reminded of the venal mayor in the film "Jaws," who wanted to stifle word of a killer shark because tourist dollars were more important. A kid gets eaten alive? Hey, s--- happens.

We're well beyond questions of engineering integrity or worker competence. In a state Senate hearing last month, one lawmaker asked Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty: "What is Caltrans going to do to earn the trust of the public?"

"That," said Dougherty, "is one of my enormous challenges."

No, it's not. The independent review ordered by the governor shouldn't be an audit but an exorcism. Expunge those who remained silent, who crafted or encouraged this "silence is golden" policy, and who fought to withhold public documents from journalists. Fire them. Dare engineers to put their professional reputations on the line, and if found to be lying, let the state hold them accountable and strip their licenses if necessary.

Of course, we'll hear all sorts of excuses why we can't do that and the blundering waste within Caltrans will continue. Like the bridge, it'll be ODTAA, which also suggests a descriptor we can't print here, though the governor says it happens.

Bruce Maiman is an ex-radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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