Inspecting bridges and freeways in quake-prone California is arguably the most crucial work Caltrans performs. These inspections not only safeguard lives now and in the immediate future, but for an engineering project like the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, they provide a safety factor that is expected to last for decades.
That's why it is essential that Caltrans take seriously the concerns of independent experts and its own employees about past inspections of the Bay Bridge and other freeway structures statewide. There were signs Tuesday it may now be doing so – a welcome turnaround. A day earlier, top Caltrans officials attempted to discredit outside experts who had questioned the design and testing of pilings that support the eastern span of the Bay Bridge now under construction.
As The Bee revealed Sunday, a Caltrans employee who was later caught fabricating inspection results had done testing work on some of those crucial bridge pilings.
Caltrans by 2009 had learned of at least three fabrications by the employee, Duane Wiles, on other structures, including a freeway overpass in Riverside.
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But it wasn't until The Bee's Charles Piller started asking questions that the California Department of Transportation fired Wiles, along with a supervisor, Brian Liebich. Caltrans announced the firings after The Bee's story had been published.
One crucial question raised by Piller's reporting is whether Caltrans conducted a thorough investigation of the integrity of structures inspected by Wiles, given his track record. In his story, Piller cited memos by Caltrans employees who said the internal investigation had been less than adequate.
During an interview on KQED radio on Monday, acting Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and Tony Anziano, the agency's toll bridge program manager, attempted to brush off and discredit The Bee's reporting. Dougherty insisted Caltrans had conducted a thorough review of Wiles' work on the Bay Bridge, and Anziano claimed Piller would have known that if had made attempts to contact Anziano.
This latter claim is contemptible. Piller made numerous inquiries to Caltrans about his findings, but the agency decided to respond with information largely through a single spokesman, instead of giving Piller access to numerous officials responsible for the new Bay Bridge and its construction.
And as for Dougherty's claim of a thorough internal investigation, why didn't he release records of that Caltrans investigation after Piller made his initial inquiries? And why hasn't Caltrans since released those records?
To make matters worse, Anziano on KQED used the term "so-called experts" in reference to two outside professionals quoted by The Bee who had expressed concern about the design and testing of the bridge pilings. Both are highly respected. In Sunday's story, one of those experts, Bernard Hertlein, a principal scientist at Aecom Technology Corp., suggested that the state seek a formal review of the Bay Bridge main tower foundations and Caltrans engineering by top bridge-building experts.
As it turns out, Caltrans now appears to be a partner in what could be the type of review recommended by Hertlein and others. In a press release on Tuesday, the state Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee said it had requested the Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel – comprising engineering experts – to conduct an "independent review of all records from quality assurance inspections" of the piles in question on the new Bay Bridge.
This is an appropriate move by the toll bridge committee, whose members include Dougherty. Public confidence in the bridge's safety is imperative, and an honest outside evaluation – and full release of pertinent documents by Caltrans – is essential in shoring up that trust.