SACRAMENTO -- Caltrans systematically squelched serious allegations about the structural safety of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, concluded an investigation commissioned by the state Senate Transportation Committee.
Caltrans managers marginalized dissenters, fired critics, reassigned outspoken engineers 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 report concluded.
The white paper, titled "The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future," was based largely on interviews with multiple engineers who worked on the bridge and released Wednesday in advance of the committee's Friday investigatory hearing in Sacramento.
The largest public works project in California history, the $6.4 billion bridge opened Labor Day weekend some 10 years late and at a cost nearly fivefold the original estimate. After factoring construction bond financing costs, the total price-tag will reach $13 billion.
"It is the finding of this investigation that there appears to have been chronic attempts to keep many of the serious safety allegations quiet, put aside and not dealt with in an open, businesslike manner in the public's interest," wrote Roland De Wolk, a veteran journalist and former Bay Area television news producer contracted by the state Senate to produce the report.
In addition, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee -- a partnership of Caltrans, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the California Transportation Commission charged with overseeing the project -- was given "extraordinary" exemptions from the state's open government laws that led to a lack of transparency and accountability.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who commissioned the white paper and is holding hearings about the project, expressed anger but not surprise at the findings.
"In my experience, particularly in state government, large agencies are insular and have fear or disregard of the public and the public's representatives," DeSaulnier said. "Now, we are finding out that not only did the bridge cost too much and take too long, but there was a willful attempt to make sure the public didn't know what was going on."
Said bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon on Wednesday, "The Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee is reviewing the report and looks forward to responding to the report and answering the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee's questions on Friday."
Gordon also said that for those who are interested, thousands of pages of public documents related to the construction of the new span are available for review at BayBridgeInfo.org.
Among those quoted in the white paper and scheduled to testify Friday is 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.
As has been reported in numerous media outlets over the years, the welds were riddled with hundreds of cracks. Repairs would put the bridge two years behind schedule and ultimately add $100 million to the span's price tag.
But Merrill told De Wolk in his first interview about his work on the bridge that, at the time, Caltrans 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.
An independent pre-audit of the firms the state chose to replace MACTEC -- Caltrop and its subcontractor, Alta Vista Solutions -- concluded that the new vendor lacked sufficient qualifications for the work until it hired former MACTEC inspectors, De Wolk wrote.
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 more testing, but "I got told we weren't doing any testing and stop mentioning it," Merrill told De Wolk.
A 25-year Caltrans engineer, Douglas Coe, corroborated Merrill's account of the weld conflicts in China and is also expected to testify Friday.
Coe and Merrill are quoted in the white paper saying the new bridge is safe but that the decks will require expensive retrofits well before the promised 150-year life span of the bridge.
Caltrans Principal Construction Manager Pete Siegenthaler, Caltrans Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano and Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger all disagreed with the two engineers' assessments, telling De Wolk the cracks were repairable and have been fixed.
The 50-page draft report includes a timeline, details of other controversies about the bridge and numerous links to relevant documents online.
It also offers recommendations for legislators based on lessons learned from the bridge, including the establishment of an independent bureau of inquiry to investigate allegations about the safety of public projects.