Bay Bridge

The Public Eye: Caltrans director misrepresents key bridge facts in email to employees

In an email last week to California Department of Transportation employees, agency Director Malcolm Dougherty mischaracterized the status of several controversies involving faulty materials, construction and testing on the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

After he reviewed the status of Caltrans' work on broken and suspect bolts on the suspension span, Dougherty addressed other doubts about the bridge:

"We've already tackled the other challenges we've faced on this project. Welds – fixed; concrete foundations – fully evaluated, no flaws; corrosion on pre-stressed tendons – extracted and tested and rectified where necessary. Each of these had outside experts' review," he wrote.

The Bee fact-checked Dougherty's statement for each challenge.

Issue: "Welds – fixed."

Fact check: In 2005 concerns arose about welds on the piers of the skyway viaduct, followed by doubts in 2009 about the quality of welds on the deck and tower of the suspension span. Agency experts – and for the skyway, federal authorities – either required fixes or deemed weld quality to be adequate.

A third welding issue was reported last month by The Bee. It involves 20 giant welds in the base of the suspension span tower. The welds are crucial for stability in a large earthquake. Caltrans has acknowledged hundreds of actual or possible defects in those welds, and has been evaluating them for more than nine months. The agency so far has refused to provide details on its repair work.

Members of the Bay Area Toll Authority, which manages funds to pay for the bridge, recently asked Caltrans to provide a thorough briefing about the weld problems.

Issue: "Concrete foundations – fully evaluated, no flaws."

Fact check: A Bee investigation found numerous irregularities in the testing and construction of the reinforced concrete foundation piles that support the suspension span tower. Independent experts said the problems called into question the reliability of the foundation in a major quake.

Caltrans assigned its peer review expert panel to review the issues, and they deemed the foundation sound. A Bee examination of the panelists revealed professional and financial conflicts of interest that ethics experts said called into question the panel's finding. Independent engineers also cited numerous technical errors in the peer review analysis by the Caltrans panel.

The California Legislative Analyst's Office, at the request of state senators, has coordinated the formation of a new expert panel to review the foundation concerns. Its report is due later this month. The controversy also led to legislation, recently passed unanimously by the Senate, to require more openness and to reduce conflicts of interests among experts asked to review transportation megaprojects.

Issue: "Corrosion on pre-stressed tendons – extracted and tested and rectified where necessary."

Fact check: Thousands of steel tendons inside the skyway were allowed to corrode due to numerous construction and management lapses over a period of about three years. The tendons are vital for the span's structural integrity.

Caltrans examined many of the tendons in 2006 and 2007, and reported the corrosion as minor. A Bee investigation found that the agency misrepresented key data and understated the amount of time many tendons were exposed to corrosive water and debris. The agency also provided incorrect and misleading information to its sole independent expert reviewer.

Bridge experts told The Bee that Caltrans and its builder used substandard construction methods that could lead to further corrosion over time. A leading metallurgist, who examined the agency's study of the tendons, called Caltrans' findings "essentially useless," "woefully inadequate" and "meaningless" for detecting a kind of corrosion-caused cracking that can ultimately cause tendons to break as they fatigue under stress.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and members of the Bay Area Toll Authority have asked the agency to respond to concerns raised in The Bee investigation.

DeSaulnier and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, a member of the transportation committee and an engineer, have called for a formal investigation of Caltrans' management of the Bay Bridge project, which would involve subpoena power and testimony by officials under oath.

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

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