Bay Area transportation commissioners said Wednesday that Caltrans has much to explain about why it failed to notify other officials that a technician who had fabricated test data on several structures also tested the new Bay Bridge.
That failure to communicate had serious implications: Now-suspect tests for the main tower foundation of the new bridge could have been repeated after the fabrications on other structures became known, but before the tower was assembled, making retesting impossible.
Steve Heminger, chairman of the state's Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, pointed out that a falsification by Duane Wiles was first uncovered in 2008, but the bridge tower sections did not arrive from China until the summer of 2010.
The discussion at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting in Oakland was prompted by a Bee investigation published Sunday that raised testing and design questions about the foundations that underpin the bridge tower and many other freeway structures.
Earlier this week, Caltrans fired Wiles and his supervisor, and Heminger's agency requested a review by the state Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel. The expert group will examine all aspects of the bridge that were tested by Wiles, he said.
"The mystifying thing to me is that, at least according to The Sacramento Bee, this employee was reprimanded about these falsifications in April 2009," in time to retest the bridge foundations now in doubt, Heminger told commissioners, according to an audio recording of the meeting.
The commission manages transportation planning, coordination and financing for the nine Bay Area counties.
"You can certainly question whether he should have been fired then," Heminger said. "I would. But that occurred over a year before the first steel was placed on top of this tower pier. Why that information was not conveyed to the relevant people running this program is something that simply has got to get fixed."
"The regret, and maybe that's too weak a word," he said " is we could have had a lot better access to this foundation if we had been told about this employee sooner."
The window of opportunity for repeat testing can extend for many months depending on construction schedules, according to foundation engineers.
Heminger said the expert panel must determine what caused such a breakdown inside Caltrans, where numerous officials had been aware of Wiles' actions.
"You're in a pickle if you've got to do some retrofit work on a bridge you haven't even opened yet," he added. "Let's hope we don't have to go there."
Commissioners asked Tony Anziano, Caltrans' toll bridge program manager, to frame what he regarded as the worst-case scenario for the expert panel's findings.
"That we determine we are in good shape," Anziano said. "We come out with a statement and we say that the structure is just fine and will perform as required."
He said that rigorous checks and balances make it difficult for one technician to seriously harm a structure, especially one the scale of the new Bay Bridge.
"Nothing depends on a single person," Anziano said.
Commissioners expressed skepticism, and pointed out that Anziano did not know about the testing problems on the bridge project until The Bee interviewed Caltrans officials.
"I'm blown away that we didn't know about it, but I'm really blown away that you didn't know about it until 30 days ago," Bill Dodd, a commissioner and Napa County supervisor, told Anziano. "Somehow, there's got to be better communication at Caltrans."
Commissioners wondered how Caltrans can be confident going forward in testing review systems that resulted in the current predicament – a re-evaluation of basic features of the $6.3 billion structure.
In a discussion of financial liability if the bridge requires repair due to Wiles' actions, Heminger said he assumes the state would be responsible.
"The most important thing," he said. " is to get the bottom of this and to provide some reassurance to the public that we've got a safe structure. That's why we are building this bridge in the first place."