The state of California cannot afford another construction debacle like the building of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
Years of delay. Final costs more than quadruple the original estimates. Lingering questions about the life of the span and the soundness of key components. From start to finish, the project was a political, financial and construction fiasco.
There's lots of blame to go around. Politicians who insisted on a signature span drove up costs and pushed back the opening nearly a decade. But perhaps the biggest lesson has been that, in a state deeply dependent on a smoothly functioning transportation system, the agency responsible for road and highway construction remains insular, arrogant and secretive.
That must change because public trust in the state Department of Transportation is critical to winning voter approval for essential future funding. Until the voters have confidence in Caltrans, they will be reluctant to entrust it with their tax dollars.
That's why the recent investigative report and hearing by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, chaired by Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, were so critical. DeSaulnier is trying to determine what went wrong on the Bay Bridge project and how it can be avoided in the future so Caltrans can regain credibility.
The first step toward rebuilding trust is transparency. The committee-commissioned investigation found "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 best interest."
—... Furthermore, this inquiry has come to the inevitable conclusion that there are legitimate concerns that this appears to be part of an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project."
The report details complaints by engineers who felt their opinions were squelched and said they were discouraged from putting concerns in writing because they might someday become public. It suggests those who didn't go along were punished. It highlights a record-keeping system at the agency that's dysfunctional and a staff that resists public records requests.
Appearing before the committee, under questioning from DeSaulnier, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano insisted the agency is transparent and open to dissenting views.
But we've seen Dougherty duck and give contradictory answers about the infamous failed rods. We saw how poorly Anziano treated highly respected outside engineers who presented divergent views about the metallurgical breakdown. We've witnessed the agency delay more than six months responding to our requests for basic records.
As DeSaulnier said to them last week, "I don't believe you." Neither do we.