Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Bridge series finds key questions unanswered

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Sacramentan Jon Matthews was on the Bay Bridge in 1989 when a section of the eastern span collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake. He was past that span, driving west, and to this day is grateful the western span withstood the quake.

"The thing I remember is the cables the huge vertical suspension cables that hold up the bridge deck. I remember them bending and straightening, kind of like harp strings. I was thinking these cables are way too large for this to be happening," said Matthews, a Bee reporter at the time.

"But that section of the bridge, whoever built it did an amazing job, within a few seconds everything was back to normal," he said.

Not so on the eastern span, where a 50-foot section of the bridge collapsed, killing one person and launching what will be at least a 15-year effort to rebuild the bridge to withstand the most severe earthquake.

It would be a good thing if at this point in the construction we all could feel as Matthews did about the western span – grateful for a job well done, and confident that we're safe when we use it.

But at a projected cost of $6.5 billion, as The Bee's Charles Piller reports on Page A1 today, it's not yet clear whether this new bridge will be able to withstand a severe earthquake.

Piller has spent 10 months investigating tips, many from within Caltrans itself, that call into question the structural integrity of the new bridge, set to open by Labor Day 2013.

He's found problems that should concern all of us. In his initial report last year he found that a Caltrans employee responsible for radiation tests on the piles for the bridge main tower had a history of falsifying those tests on other structures, and failed to ensure his testing device was working properly when he tested the Bay Bridge (a routine requirement). He was fired, along with his boss. Later, Caltrans rescinded his firing.

Then Piller looked into conflicts of interest among the experts commissioned by Caltrans to figure out whether there is a problem with the structural integrity of the bridge. In a story published earlier this year, he reported numerous financial and professional conflicts of interest that cast doubt on their findings that the bridge and its foundation are safe.

In the story published today, Piller discusses the sonic test results he subsequently found that reveal problems with a 19-foot section of concrete in one of 13 key support piles. Nothing was ever done to retest or adequately check that pile, and Caltrans apparently does not have any records to show a second pile was even tested.

More alarming is that more than six months after Piller's first report, neither the highest officials at Caltrans, nor Gov. Jerry Brown, are publicly addressing these concerns.

Key questions remain unanswered:

Why would a contractor fail to retest the concrete in one of 13 piles when the initial test showed a major anomaly?

Why was Caltrans unaware of that test result?

Why isn't Caltrans concerned that it lacks test results for another pile?

Why aren't the governor and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty leading a publicly transparent review of these issues?

Since he began reporting, Piller has reviewed 60,000 Caltrans documents and interviewed dozens of people, including independent engineering experts and confidential Caltrans sources. He's called dozens of experts, and many, to avoid damaging their relationship with Caltrans, have been reluctant to talk to him.

He has yet to have a meaningful conversation with the Governor's Office, which continues to refer all questions to Caltrans.

Yet earthquake safety is a serious issue for Californians. The state expects 100 million drivers a year to use the new bridge. We all know it's just a matter of time before another quake hits the Bay Area, where 63 people were killed in Loma Prieta.

Scott Lebar, The Bee's senior editor for investigations who has worked with Piller on this story, said, "The bottom line is the bridge may be safe, it may be able to withstand the earthquake it was built to endure, it may be just fine. But because of the holes in the record keeping and the questions raised by the tests, we don't know. I'm going to assume that those crossing it will feel that, not just for $6.5 billion, but for any price, they shouldn't have to wonder."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee