Bay Bridge

Caltrans agrees to greater public scrutiny of expert panels

After months of publicly defending the work and secretive process of a panel investigating the testing and safety of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the California Department of Transportation agreed Wednesday to allow greater public scrutiny.

At a state Senate hearing, agency officials said they would work with legislators to improve public access to deliberations by its expert "peer review" panel and records involving advice on major transportation projects.

"These are public dollars. It's important that there's a transparent process and that people are held accountable," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, which held the hearing. He and Caltrans agreed to collaborate on a new law or administrative rule to improve the peer review process.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty defended the current method as "among the finest systems of seismic review." But he conceded that public involvement in such deliberations and better disclosure of possible conflicts of interest would not keep experts from participating and might boost confidence in the handling of megaprojects.

The new $6.4 billion span is scheduled to open Labor Day next year. The Toll Bridge Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel evaluated the foundation of the new Bay Bridge main tower after Bee reports last fall showed testing irregularities that troubled outside experts. Caltrans described the panel as independent.

The peer review panel agreed with Caltrans' assertions that the foundation was built and tested properly. The matter is under review by the Legislative Analyst's Office, to which Dougherty pledged his cooperation Wednesday.

Wednesday's hearing was in response to Bee investigations of the panel published earlier this year, as well as to concerns about oversight of the planned high-speed rail project. Senators expressed concern that the panelists meet only in private, and have financial and professional ties to Caltrans and some of its contractors – whose work they evaluate.

DeSaulnier cited Bee reports showing that Caltrans paid one panel member, Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, more than $1.4 million for advice. He and professors under his purview received nearly $19 million more in Caltrans contracts to study seismic issues involving the Bay Bridge and other projects.

Dougherty said those payments did not represent a conflict.

But if Seible "had a vested interest in the design" of the new Bay Bridge, the Caltrans director said, that would constitute a serious conflict.

Although Seible was not an employee of the design firms, he has claimed creative authorship for the bridge tower. A 2009 university publication noted that " several of the new systems built into the bridge were first envisioned by the structural engineering faculty at UCSD," headed by Seible.

"One of the key innovations in the Bay Bridge which has come out of UCSD is the concept for the single 525-foot-tall tower that supports the self-anchored suspension bridge," Seible was quoted as saying. He also directed testing of that design – research funded by Caltrans.

"My sense of Caltrans is that there is arrogance there at times" in how it manages its peer-review process, said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, the committee's vice chairman. "We should move forward in confidence, but also in humility."

Caltrans officials said that the Bay Bridge often requires speedy advice from the panel, which operates privately to ensure frank discussion of complex technical issues. "It is a challenge for them to have their meetings open to the public," Dougherty said. Any changes to public notice and participation should preserve the panel's ability to act aggressively when needed, he said.

Dougherty agreed to make available documentation of the panel's future meetings. Previously, when minutes were prepared at all, they were not published. Better disclosure of potential conflicts of interest also will be made, Dougherty said.

Panelists recently began to file financial disclosures under Fair Political Practices Commission rules. Caltrans is working with the commission to tailor new rules for peer review panels.

Dougherty and Bimla Rhinehart, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, said at the hearing that they also would work with senators to increase openness by the Toll Bridge Project Oversight Committee – a key state panel that oversees the Bay Area's major bridge projects – whose meetings are also held in private.

Elizabeth Alexis, director of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said state transportation agencies distort the term "peer review," which in academia involves voluntary public service to judge technical or scholarly merit. Such traditional peer review bars financial or professional ties that might influence viewpoints, sometimes in subtle or unseen ways, she said.

"Once someone starts to be paid substantial amounts of money," Alexis said, "they are part of the project team."