State Senate committee to hold hearing on Caltrans' Bay Bridge review panel

03/28/2012 12:00 AM

06/14/2012 7:01 PM

The California Senate Transportation Committee announced Tuesday that it will hold a public hearing on the use of expert advisers by the state Department of Transportation.

The move came in response to a Bee investigation Sunday that detailed conflicts of interest and secrecy involving an agency panel that recently praised Caltrans construction oversight of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span, and declared the structure safe and sound.

"When peer review panels are making decisions affecting the safety of our roadways, the public deserves open public hearings, access to information, and to hold decision-makers accountable," said committee chairman Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, in a statement. "At a minimum, the public needs to know who is on the panel, what expertise they bring to the review process, and what conflicts of interest they may have."

Transportation officials had described the Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel as independent. The Bee found that three of its four members have had financial ties with Caltrans or its contractors. Three panelists also helped select the Bay Bridge design, among numerous other conflicts that influenced panelist judgment, according to ethics experts.

DeSaulnier said in an interview that he favored a fresh examination of the bridge by a genuinely independent panel, given the project's importance and $6.5 billion cost.

Although the panel members are world-class engineers, he said, they worked within a "Caltrans culture that does not encourage transparency," and often discourages independent inquiry.

The engineering experts met behind closed doors and relied almost entirely on materials prepared or managed by Caltrans, although the panel was asked to convene after evidence of malfeasance by the agency came to light.

"Caltrans really missed an opportunity with this review," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who chairs that chamber's Transportation Committee. "They could have demonstrated the benefits of openness."

The bridge panel examined records about the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge. It was asked to review the structure after a Bee investigation last fall revealed that a Caltrans employee had ignored requirements meant to ensure accurate testing of the tower's reinforced concrete foundation and had fabricated test results for other structures.

At the hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, senators plan to examine the management of Caltrans' expert panels, DeSaulnier said. Legal and ethics authorities will describe practices used by other states and the private sector to ensure impartiality in such groups.

"Caltrans looks forward to discussing the (panel's) conclusion that the Bay Bridge is safe with the Senate Transportation Committee," said agency spokeswoman Tamie McGowen.

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