A third wave of news reports about doctored concrete tests on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge and other state bridges is generating sharp scrutiny but no major safety worries so far from Caltrans' legislatively mandated construction oversight partners.
"We are watching the situation closely," said Jim Ghielmetti, vice chairman of the California Transportation Commission and president of Pleasanton-based Signature Homes. "We would be foolish not to. But there is a peer review panel looking at it and in reality, these large projects are so over-engineered that safety is unlikely to be an issue."
Despite Ghielmetti's confidence,¿¿ the state commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission -- both of which share financial oversight of seismic work on bridges -- have asked a lot of questions of Caltrans since November when a Sacramento Bee investigation revealed that a rogue state inspector faked test results during the construction of the new Benicia-Martinez bridge.
Earlier this week, the Bee reported that an internal Caltrans engineering team had found "intentionally modified" test data on other bridges including the new $6.4 billion Bay Bridge. The news account also cited criticisms of the state agency's testing procedures in a draft Federal Highway Administration report.
In an official statement, Caltrans called the conclusions based on a draft report "irresponsible and premature." of. The agency also said it "has no information that brings into question the safety of our transportation infrastructure" and repeated its statement that multiple tests show the foundation concrete in the Bay Bridge is safe. Caltrans officials will have to convince state elected officials of that on Aug. 14 when the state Senate Transportation Committee grills the agency about the falsified tests and structural safety implications for the Bay and other bridges.
Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said he will call for a third party to scrub the numbers and generate an unbiased risk assessment.
The implications of finding a severe safety defect in the state's largest public works project are nearly unimaginable.
A 525-foot suspension tower already sits atop a massive foundation comprised of steel-sleeved and concrete-filled pilings buried deep into the bedrock. The bridge deck is in place; the cable is hung; and many of its cable suspenders have been installed.
Tearing out the foundation would cost tens of millions of dollars and further delay the opening of a bridge intended to replace the old cantilever span that every engineer consulted has said will fail in major earthquake. It's been almost a quarter century since Loma Prieta sheered off a piece of the upper deck and one motorist died.
"I would be shocked if this analysis leads to the worst-case scenario," DeSaulnier said. "But we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't address it and God forbid, an earthquake hits and the bridge fails."
So far, both the Bay Area and state transportation commissions agree with Caltrans' assessment of the new span's safety.
MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler cited the peer review group's positive conclusions based on redundant structural design features and tests conducted on the massive suspension tower's foundations.
But MTC is no apologist for Caltrans. It has over the years publicly criticized the behemoth state agency for cost overruns and delays, hired its own engineers to counter state cost estimates and aggressively moved to take control of tens of millions of dollars in toll bridge proceeds generated by local commuters.
The commission in 2005 persuaded legislators -- already frustrated with escalating costs and repeated pleas for more money -- to order Caltrans to share financial oversight of the seismic work on the bridges.
The collaboration has evolved into a generally harmonious Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee comprised of MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and California Transportation Commission Executive Director Bimla Rinehart.
Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773 or @lvorderbrueggen.
BAY BRIDGE TIMELINE
Nov. 12, 1936: San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opens to traffic.
Oct. 17, 1989: Loma Prieta earthquake sheers bolts on a portion of the upper deck, causing a 50-foot, 250-ton section of the upper deck to collapse. One motorist dies.
September 1996: Estimates put the cost of a new eastern span at a range of $902 million to $1.4 billion depending on design.
2001: Construction cost estimates soar to $3.04 billion.
2004: The price tag jumps again -- to $5.1 billion -- when the global steel market tightens.
July 2005: In an attempt to staunch cost overruns, Legislature creates the three-pronged Toll Bridge Project Oversight Committee, comprised of Caltrans, Metropolitan Transportation Commission (acting as the Bay Area Toll Authority) and the California Transportation Commission.
2005 through June 2012: Costs continue to escalate but at a less rate, rising from $5.4 billion in October 2005 to $6.41 billion as of last June.