Bay Bridge

Editorial: Governor is the enabler of 'malpractice' at Caltrans

As he came to the defense of Caltrans recently, Gov. Jerry Brown derided The Bee for having the audacity to question testing of the foundation for the new $6.5 billion Bay Bridge and other vital links in California's transportation system.

In his first public comments about The Bee's reports about the bridge and Caltrans, Brown suggested that the reporting was "baseless," and bordered on "malpractice."

It's the governor who is bordering on malpractice with such throwaway lines. Having engaged in little personal scrutiny of Caltrans, he has allowed this agency to grow ever more insular as it dismisses hard questions as baseless and ill-informed.

Brown should welcome the reporting. Through the persistence of reporter Charles Piller, The Bee has managed to peel back some of the secrecy that shrouds this 20,000-employee agency.

Piller's work began with a report in November that focused on a veteran Caltrans technician who continued to test freeway structures and collect other safety data, even after his bosses had discovered that he had falsified results.

Caltrans fired the technician only after The Bee wrote about him. Then, stunningly, the department rescinded the move and allowed him to resign.

In its latest offering, The Bee last week made use of the Freedom of Information Act to get the Federal Highway Administration to disclose Caltrans' internal documents showing that a special team within Caltrans had uncovered problems with safety testing far broader than was previously known.

The documents that were the focus of last Sunday's report weren't the final assessment. Caltrans engineers continue to review the testing.

But the documents show that some Caltrans engineers were questioning the testing even as Caltrans leaders mounted an aggressive public relations campaign intended to undermine The Bee's reports.

Importantly, The Bee has never said the new Bay Bridge will be unsafe when it opens next year. But shoddy testing has prompted outside experts to question whether it would withstand a seismic event of unprecedented magnitude – the very reason that the state has spent $6.5 billion to build the new eastern span.

Over the years, Caltrans has done important work. It has sped the reopening of major freeways damaged by earthquakes and fire. Even now, the department is overseeing two other major Bay Area projects, including a fourth Caldecott Tunnel and bypassing the Devil's Slide section of Highway 1 by tunneling through the mountainside.

Yet questions about Caltrans' culture are hardly new.

Last year, the California state auditor found cost overruns on 476 projects amounting to $305 million, while the Legislative Analyst's Office wrote that Caltrans, managing $10 billion in highway projects, "provides insufficient information regarding the basis for workload and staffing."

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, intends to hold another oversight hearing on Tuesday. He seems committed to getting to the root of the problem. If so, he will need more than one hearing.

DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat, is pushing legislation to create an inspector general within Caltrans to ferret out misfeasance and malfeasance. Caltrans would resist such oversight. Given Caltrans' history, however, perhaps an inspector general is exactly what is needed.

Brian Kelly, Brown's new appointee as secretary of Business, Housing and Transportation, the agency that oversees Caltrans, is working on a reorganization plan for Caltrans. Kelly, who came from the Senate, is a thoughtful public servant who is taking the issue seriously.

As he sorts it all out, he will need the support of his boss, the governor. Brown ought to support him by taking seriously honest critiques of Caltrans, including those raised by this newspaper.

The Bee's past stands

"Caltrans continues to say Californians have nothing to fear, and that it has nothing to hide. If that is the case, Caltrans should open its records on the Bay Bridge and welcome a complete review by the Legislature, outside experts and anyone who has questions about its process to date."

– May 31, 2012