Investigation improves safeguards for bridges, roads

05/18/2013 8:30 PM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

The Bee's ongoing investigation into California Department of Transportation testing and construction has prompted changes in how state government safeguards bridges and roadways.

Caltrans testing unit oversight: Bee reports on falsification of test results for bridges and freeway structures across the state – and the use of faulty test methods for the tower foundation for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – sparked numerous actions by Caltrans and other authorities.

Two employees – a technician who falsified results and a supervisor who failed to investigate the extent of testing fraud – were fired.

Legislative committees demanded changes in Caltrans' culture and practices.

The Federal Highway Administration criticized Caltrans and called for substantial reforms in how the agency manages foundation tests.

Caltrans formed a team of experts to study its foundation testing unit. It found falsified or incorrect test results tied to four engineers, and suspect or missing test results for structures statewide. Caltrans vowed sweeping changes in how it conducts and tracks foundation testing.

Bay Bridge oversight: Caltrans asked its own "peer review" engineering experts to study concerns raised in Bee reports about the Bay Bridge. They concluded that the tower foundation was sound. A Bee report soon after showed that the credibility of those experts was compromised by financial and professional conflicts of interest involving Caltrans and its bridge contractors, and that they had ignored or misstated key data in their assessment.

The California Senate called for a second review of the tower foundation and seismic safety issues. Caltrans agreed to cooperate. That review, coordinated by the Legislative Analyst's Office, is due in June.

In early May, The Bee reported defects in 20 welds – essential for seismic safety – at the base of the suspension span tower. Caltrans has so far withheld details on how the agency will manage the problem, prompting questions from the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Mega-project oversight: In response to Bee investigations, lawmakers demanded changes to make reviews of mega-projects independent of Caltrans, transparent and open to the public. Caltrans agreed. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Transportation and Housing Committee, introduced Senate Bill 425 to complete those changes.

Caltrans oversight: Following Bee coverage about Caltrans' failures to investigate problems within its testing and construction programs, DeSaulnier introduced Senate Bill 486, to move jurisdiction for agency audits and investigations into the California Transportation Commission.

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

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