Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California's Bay Bridge mess needs full airing

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The Bay Bridge fiasco – or scandal – is entering the inevitable finger-pointing phase.

Who is responsible for cost overruns, delays and defects in the $6-plus billion project?

The architects who proposed the single-pylon suspension design? The politicians who approved it? The other politicians who tried to change it? The state transportation bureaucrats who managed, or mismanaged, the project? The contractors who actually did the faulty work?

All of the above?

This week, it was semi-finally decided not to press for a Labor Day opening with a $5.6 million party – nothing about the project ever being certain. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, stated it nicely, to wit:

"The need to delay the opening in order to fully repair busted bolts is just the latest frustration associated with this project. The commuters are the ones who have paid for this project as it has skyrocketed over budget, and they are the ones left vulnerable each day that they must cross the old span. Those responsible for these delays must be held accountable."

Yes they must, and DeSaulnier, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, should do it. He should ask for enough investigative staff to discover who did – or didn't do – what, building on the dogged reporting of Bee reporter Charles Piller that first brought the construction defects to light. He should then air the findings in hearings with principal figures under oath.

There's more than ample precedent for such an investigation, as if the fiasco itself isn't justification enough.

While the bridge project was pending, the Legislature conducted high-profile investigations into suspect dealings by then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush and the questionable award of a $100 million computer software contract by then-Gov. Gray Davis' administration.

DeSaulnier, moreover, has shown independence in bucking his own party to oppose the largest public works project ever proposed for California – a statewide bullet train.

It would, however, be shortsighted to dig no deeper than contractors and bureaucrats.

The "busted bolts" are just the latest incarnation of what has been a deeply flawed project ever since former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration proposed a simple, functional and relatively inexpensive replacement for the Bay Bridge's shaky eastern span, only to have Bay Area politicians insist on having a more exotic – and much more expensive – design.

A complete investigation would go back to the beginning to determine how the project more than quadrupled in cost and took two decades even to get to the point where it's not fit to be opened – regardless of who might be embarrassed – especially with even larger and more complex bullet train and Delta tunnel projects pending.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.