State panel to review Bay Bridge work

11/16/2011 12:00 AM

06/14/2012 6:48 PM

A state oversight committee announced Tuesday that it had requested a formal review of the foundation of the new Bay Bridge tower by the state's Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel.

The request by the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee follows a Bee investigation published Sunday that raised testing and design questions about the concrete and steel piles that underpin the bridge tower.

The California Department of Transportation this week announced that a technician who had tested some of the piles, and his supervisor, had been fired. The Bee report detailed fabrications of test results on other freeway structures by that technician and allegations of graft within the agency's foundation testing branch.

The toll committee, established in 2004 to oversee seismic retrofit activities for the state's toll bridges, has three members: Caltrans acting Director Malcolm Dougherty, Bay Area Toll Authority Executive Director Steve Heminger and California Transportation Commission Executive Director Bimla Rhinehart. They asked for a complete review from the expert panel.

"It is essential that outside, independent technical experts undertake a thorough review of all the inspection documents, assess the integrity of the completed work, and make their findings public," Heminger said in a written statement.

The review panel's chair, structural engineer Joseph Nicoletti, said in an interview that his group would have its first meeting to address the bridge tower foundation on Dec. 8. Nicoletti said the panel will examine "the effect of any abnormalities" within the piles, should they exist, on the structural integrity of the foundation.

He said the work probably would take a few months to complete.

Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman Randy Rentschler said the expert panel will seek additional technical expertise if needed.

In addition to Nicoletti, who chaired the engineering and design advisory panel for the new Bay Bridge eastern span, the panel includes Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego; I.M. Idriss, a geotechnical engineer and emeritus UC Davis professor; and John Fisher, emeritus professor of civil engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Committee on Transportation, endorsed the move.

"We have to get to the bottom of this," she said. "We can't have a lack of confidence in the integrity of the state's infrastructure, especially now, as we are on the cusp of building the nation's only high-speed rail system."

In a response to earlier questions from The Bee, Caltrans chief engineer Robert Pieplow said it would not be advisable to appoint a review panel for the tower foundation.

Dougherty said Monday, "we welcome any external review of the Bay Bridge."

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