Some experts assigned to review Bay Bridge have apparent conflicts

04/30/2013 6:04 PM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

Some of the experts asked to conduct a technical review of the tower foundation for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge have current or recent financial and professional ties to the California Department of Transportation and Bay Bridge contractors.

The Legislative Analyst's Office created the new panel at the request of state senators after a Bee investigation showed conflicts of interest involving members of a Caltrans review panel that judged the foundation sound last year.

However, among the LAO panel's seven members, five have had relationships with Caltrans, Bay Bridge contractors, or both. And two have similar relationships that sparked concerns about the Caltrans review panel.

The Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, comprising the directors of Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, provided $100,000 for the LAO panel's work. The experts are to assess whether "Caltrans made proper assumptions and followed proper procedures to ensure that the bridge will perform as expected" during a worst-case earthquake.

The ties between the new panelists, the agency and Bay Bridge contractors caught Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, by surprise.

"I'm distressed to hear of it," DeSaulnier said, pledging to work with the LAO to ensure an assessment untainted by actual or apparent conflicts.

"There's no sense in paying 100 grand to have someone summarily approve everything Caltrans has done," he added. "We need an independent review."

LAO analyst Jessica Peters, who coordinated the selection of experts, said her agency closely examined conflicts, judged them to be minor and consulted with Senate transportation staff during the selection process.

The LAO tried to find top experts free of financial dependence on Caltrans or other state agencies, and able to work without fear of jeopardizing their livelihoods.

A Bee examination of research records found that Caltrans previously funded work by four of the panelists, and two have worked directly on issues involving the new Bay Bridge. Two have credited Brian Maroney, Caltrans' top engineer for the new span, for guidance or assistance. Three previously worked for companies hired to design, build or oversee its construction.

Panel Chairman Reginald DesRoches, engineering school chairman at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has worked on a handful of research projects underwritten by Caltrans, including one now being completed for which the agency paid $150,000. His 1997 UC Berkeley doctoral dissertation was based on a project funded in part by Caltrans. DesRoches thanked Maroney for assistance in a paper based on that dissertation.

"There is a balance between having a conflict of interest and having the necessary experience," the LAO's Peters said. She said DesRoches was eminently qualified and has received only a fraction of his career funding from Caltrans.

"If I felt I had a conflict, I wouldn't be on this panel," DesRoches said in an interview. His professional contacts with Maroney amounted to conversations every few years at professional conferences, DesRoches said, and that he and Maroney have no personal relationship.

After his selection as chairman by the LAO, DesRoches recommended the other panelists.

They include Ahmad Itani, an engineering professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, former Caltrans employee and frequent recipient of agency funds for research and testing. The agency supported Itani's work on the Bay Bridge tower, at the heart of the LAO panel's charge. Itani's website lists Caltrans as his most frequent benefactor and he often has credited Maroney for assistance in his research.

In 2009, Itani advised the agency on Bay Bridge repairs about a problem on the temporary S-curve near Yerba Buena Island. He worked with Frieder Seible - dean emeritus of the University of California, San Diego, School of Engineering and a member of the Caltrans review panel - who has claimed creative authorship for the new span's tower. The LAO panel will examine the conclusions reached by Seible.

Itani also worked as a consultant for a co-designer of the new Bay Bridge, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, and as a bridge engineer for Caltrans in the early 1990s.

He declined to comment about his relationships with Caltrans, its employees or contractors.

Peters said Itani described his work on the Bay Bridge tower as testing, not analysis, and that Itani said he is not currently under contract for Caltrans work.

"The expertise that (Itani) brings to this area outweighs the potential conflicts of interest from that past work," DesRoches said. A relatively small pool of qualified engineers, he said, made avoiding all conflicts difficult.

Another panelist, private consultant Sena Kumarasena, was employed full time during the beginning of his work with the LAO panel by the New York-based design and construction firm Ammann & Whitney, which worked on the new Bay Bridge suspension span. At the end of March, Kumarasena began to work part time for the firm, but, he said in an email, he has never been assigned to the Bay Bridge contract.

Kumarasena said he regards Ammann & Whitney's role, which involves seismic issues for the span's cables, as irrelevant to the panel's focus.

He formerly worked as an executive for HNTB, a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that has provided construction management on the new Bay Bridge, California's high-speed rail project and the recently completed Devil's Slide tunnel south of San Francisco.

While with HNTB, Kumarasena served in executive roles for a major Boston bridge largely built by Kiewit Corp. - a prime contractor for the Bay Bridge tower foundation that is integral to the panel review.

He also served as technical adviser for a review of the Bay Bridge design in 2004. That review recommended an alternative to the self-anchored suspension span ultimately used.

"I neither harbor any vendetta against or feel any unwarranted loyalty towards the project, Caltrans or personnel involved," Kumarasena wrote in an email, vowing "complete independence in forming my opinions."

Research by panelist and engineering professor Jack W. Baker of Stanford University has been funded on rare occasions by Caltrans. Youssef Hashash, a professor at the University of Illinois, worked on one Caltrans-funded study and worked for Parsons Brinckerhoff from 1992 to 1997.

Professors Roberto T. Leon of Georgia Tech and Robert B. Gilbert of the University of Texas, the other panelists, have no apparent conflicts.

"I'm very confident in the integrity and technical quality of the panel," DesRoches said. "We will do the best job we can given the (time) constraints." The panel hopes to provide its findings by late June.

Like the Caltrans panel, the LAO experts barred the public from their first meeting with Caltrans, held in March. The next meeting, not yet scheduled, will be open to the public, according to Peters.

"We do want to hear from the public and get all sides of the problem," DesRoches said.

At a public hearing last November, DeSaulnier called for increased transparency in the review process for megaprojects. Caltrans agreed.

In February, he introduced Senate Bill 425, part of which would require examinations of potential reviewers to head off conflicts.

Call The Bee's Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.

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