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Phillip Stolarski, center, Deputy Division chief, Materials Engineering and Testing, talks during hearing as James Merrill, left, Principal Engineer AMEC, and Doug Coe, right, Supervising Bridge Engineer for CalTrans, looks on during the hearing on Lessons Learned from the Development and Construction of the Bay Bridge at the State Capital in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

SACRAMENTO -- Caltrans leaders emphatically denied on Friday assertions that dissenting engineers who worked on the new Bay Bridge were fired or reassigned because they spoke out or that they urged employees to avoid putting issues in writing as a means to avoid public disclosure.

They also rejected the engineers' criticisms that Caltrans compromised safety in the building of the bridge.

"I appreciate their candor and I respect their opinions, but (these critics) are not representative of the overall conclusions reached by engineers at the time those decisions were made," Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty told the state Senate Transportation Committee during a daylong investigatory hearing into the allegations. "Any decisions that were made contrary to the opinions of (the critics) were made by engineers."

And contrary to what current and former Caltrans engineers told the state committee, Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano said he never asked staff to give oral updates as a means to subvert the state's public records laws. Rather, he urged people to produce ample but accurate documentation.

Neither man persuaded committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who responded to their explanations in a polite but strong tone.

"I don't believe you, and I don't think the public will have great confidence in what you have said, either," DeSaulnier said, referring to the allegations that dissenting engineers were punished. "It is incumbent upon you to prove that your assertions are factual."

At issue during the hearing were the findings of an outside investigative journalist commissioned by the state committee to study years of controversies around the Bay Bridge's gleaming new $6.4 billion eastern replacement span.

The bridge opened Labor Day weekend, a decade later and at nearly five times engineers' original cost estimates. After factoring construction bond financing costs, the total price tag will reach $13 billion.

The journalist, former KTVU news producer Roland De Wolk, detailed information provided by two Caltrans engineers and a geologist and a former inspector who said Anziano and other managers marginalized dissenters, fired or reassigned critics, and urged those involved to avoid putting details of problems or issues in writing that would have to be disclosed under the state's Public Records Act.

The engineers reiterated their statements during the hearings and clearly made a strong impression on DeSaulnier, who said he will use these findings and those of future hearings to craft reforms.

"I don't know why people would go through the trouble of coming and testifying and exposing themselves to this type of criticism, particularly Caltrans employees who are loyal and have served the state well, if there isn't some truth to what they are saying," DeSaulnier said.

MACTEC engineer and quality inspector James Merrill, whose international employer was under contract in 2008 to inspect the bridge deck welds' quality at the plant in Shanghai where they were being fabricated, told the committee that bridge managers said he was "being too rigorous" in his findings. The state later reorganized its inspection process in China, and when MACTEC's 10-year contract expired, it hired another company.

Merrill also described how he personally inspected and found defective the infamous anchor rods fabricated in Ohio that later snapped in a key seismic stabilizer on the bridge, adding millions more to the price tag and nearly derailing the Labor Day opening.

He said he suggested to Anziano that more testing was necessary, but "I got told we weren't doing more testing and to stop mentioning it," Merrill said.

That "never happened," Anziano countered.

A 25-year Caltrans engineer, Douglas Coe, corroborated Merrill's account of the weld conflicts in China and said he believed he was reassigned from the Bay Bridge to the Antioch Bridge seismic retrofit when he raised questions about whether the state should accept the bridge decks.

Anziano, however, said Coe was having trouble working collaboratively with the contractors.

The critics agree that the bridge is safe for motorists but may require costly maintenance far sooner than what is planned.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, ibabuzz.com/politics or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.