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January 24, 2014
Editorial: Caltrans has a long way to go to restore trust

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(Jan. 24 — By the Editorial Board)

Caltrans leaders have to do much better than they did Friday if they hope to gain public trust in the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and in their competence to oversee major projects.

They were summoned before a state Senate committee to respond to allegations in a worrisome report - and repeated in testimony Friday - about quality control lapses in their rush to finish the bridge that could require costly future repairs.

For instance, when managers found thousands of cracks in welds produced by a Chinese contractor, top officials replaced those who pointed out the problems instead of making all necessary fixes, according to the report done for the Transportation and Housing Committee.

Witnesses told of other instances of retribution and intimidation. According to the outside consultant's preliminary report, officials often told contractors and employees not to put their concerns in writing, apparently to evade the state public records law.

Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano denied that happened, telling the committee that he only urged staff to make sure any public documents were accurate.

"That was my message - not don't write things down," he said.

Steve Heminger, chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, said the welds were repaired and all concerns investigated. At least Heminger and Anziano directly addressed the allegations.

For the most part, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty resorted to an awfully familiar refrain: All significant safety issues were fully reviewed. With the exception of 2,300 suspect bolts that are still being tested, quality has exceeded the norm. Engineers who have raised concerns are entitled to their opinion, but it's not the consensus view.

"It is safe," Dougherty said of the $6.4 billion span, which opened Labor Day weekend, a decade late and some $5 billion over budget. "Our quality was not compromised."

Promising a spirit of cooperation, Dougherty pledged to seriously consider proposals to increase transparency and accountability, including a hotline for anonymous complaints and tips.

Yet, it was like pulling teeth for him to grudgingly admit that mistakes were made. At this point, it seems like willful denial.

There appears to be a deliberate attempt to cover up what went wrong, said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, the committee's chairman. He said that Caltrans officials will have to corroborate and document their denials and assertions. "I don't believe you," he told them.

If warranted, he might refer allegations to authorities for prosecution. Good - accountability has been in far shorter supply than excuses.

The Senate report confirms and extends the construction and quality control problems painstakingly uncovered by The Sacramento Bee's Charles Piller in a series of stories since late 2011. An independent review of doubts raised by the articles about the concrete used in the new span's foundation is underway.

Friday's hearing was billed as "lessons learned" from the Bay Bridge debacle. Based on their performance, it's not at all clear that Caltrans leaders have learned the right lessons, or many at all.

DeSaulnier is right: Californians are not going to be willing to pay taxes to deal with the state's huge infrastructure needs until they're confident that Caltrans can do the job. There is much more convincing to do.

PHOTO: Morning commuters make their way across the new eastern half of the Bay Bridge on Sept. 3, 2013. Bay Area News Group/ Laura A. Oda