Editorial: Two-and-a-half years, this issue is even more clear: Is the bridge safe

From its outward appearances, the gleaming new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a marvel and an architectural wonder. But as we have learned since November 2011, its construction was troubled and the oversight process was deeply flawed.

For more than 21/2 years, Sacramento Bee reporter Charles Piller has been digging into what happened during the construction of the $6.5 billion span, which replaced the double-deck eastern section that failed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Piller’s first story in late 2011 detailed how one bridge inspector had been disciplined repeatedly and falsified test results, and how his bosses papered it over. Appallingly, Caltrans allowed him to resign when he contested his firing.

Last Sunday, Piller disclosed how the company approved by Caltrans to provide critical welds was unqualified and did shoddy work. Rather than reject the cracked welds, Caltrans relaxed its standards.

Almost beyond belief, the state had turned to a company based in China for welds, rather than buying American steel and employing U.S. steelworkers. Caltrans tries to justify the decision by saying the Chinese company was brought on by the bridge’s main contractor.

But Caltrans awarded the contracts and ultimately is responsible, and it has become clear that, in its rush to just get the bridge done, the agency glossed over all sorts of considerations, from the subcontractor’s experience to the simple optics of outsourcing such a crucial piece of such an iconic project.

Officials made a blindered decision in a darkened room where no one was willing to stand up and ask the fundamental question: What are you doing?

Between 2011 and last week, Piller reported many details, some of which would be funny, if public safety and $6.5 billion in public funds weren’t at stake. There was, for example, the inspector who used duct tape to keep water away from the rusting innards of the bridge.

In fact, some of the most basic flaws in the construction process were written into laws by legislators who should have known better. A much-needed 2005 bill by then-Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, jump-started the long-delayed construction.

But the bill exempted the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee from having to comply with California’s basic open-meetings laws. If the committee had met in the light of day, perhaps its members wouldn’t have made bad decisions, such as relaxing strict standards for welds, and doing business with a company halfway around the world that had never built a bridge before this project.

There are heroes in this story, including the bold experts who have risked the wrath of Caltrans by speaking out, and Piller himself who has been denounced by officials from Gov. Jerry Brown on down.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, is one who conducted himself well. As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, he has confronted top Caltrans officials in ways that other legislators have not. He is headed to Congress, so there is room for a persistent legislator to step in.

We remain dumbfounded that federal transportation officials and Congress have been this stubbornly incurious about a bridge that is so important to interstate commerce. When he arrives on Capitol Hill, DeSaulnier ought to agitate for federal oversight.

Caltrans has tried to be more open lately than when Piller first started his reporting. But it needs to end its defensive crouch, find world-class engineers and scientists who don’t have conflicts of interest, and pay them to review the work.

As we did in 2011, we urge Brown to insist that there be a full and independent investigation to determine whether the bridge can withstand a massive earthquake, which was the point of spending $6.5 billion in the first place. While he’s at it, the governor should skin back his dumb comment in 2012 that The Bee’s reporting was journalistic malpractice.