Form Trumps Function on Taxpayers’ Blank Check



SFO's Proposed New Control Tower is the Latest in Public Works as Art

The elevated freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Oakland had long been known to be non-seismically-sound. Engineering students at nearby University of California, Berkeley were directed to the structure as a case-study in negative harmonics, and we who drove on it regularly were well familiar with the almost seasickening wavy ride it provided. That it collapsed, killing 42—thankfully low due to the unusually light commuter traffic around the start of the World Series game concurrent with the quake—was thus a surprise primarily to Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation in charge of the state’s highways, bridges, and rail construction. Immune from liability, the agency of course had had no incentive to retrofit the faulty structure, and thus death by roadway contributed 75% of Loma Prieta’s fatalities.

Is It Art or a Seismically-Sound Bridge?

At the same time, a 50-foot section of the Bay Bridge collapsed, and 23 years later the bridge ostensibly being built as a “fix” for this seismic failure remains under construction. I have posted before on the history of how a projected $200 million retrofit morphed into the construction of a new $6.3 billion “artistic” bridge, now slated for completion nearly a quarter-century after the earthquake.

There now unfortunately comes news that the beautiful shining new structure may likewise be better for looking at than driving on:

[The Sacramento Bee] is reporting that it has found records of an apparent defect in the construction of the Bay Bridge.

Records provided by Caltrans last fall show that a builder failed to report that a 19-foot section of concrete in the foundation of the span’s main tower had not hardened before being tested...

The extensive newspaper investigation has raised significant and troubling questions:

Yet a Bee investigation has found that the state Department of Transportation technician who conducted key testing to ensure structural integrity of the span’s foundation was later disciplined for fabricating test results on other projects. The technician, Duane Wiles, also failed to verify that his testing gauge was operating properly, as required by Caltrans to ensure the gauge’s accuracy, before he examined parts of the Bay Bridge tower foundation.

When Caltrans officials became aware of the problems with Wiles they did not thoroughly investigate his earlier work—despite public safety concerns raised by other test employees and an anonymous whistleblower.

Until contacted by The Bee for comment, Caltrans had not assessed Wiles’ work on the Bay Bridge tower.

The report goes on to say that Wiles’ test results of the bridge’s foundation were the opposite of other technicians’—of the seven piles he was charged with testing, Wiles reported six as fine; of the remaining six piles tested by others, “significant anomalies” were reported on five. In addition, design and other testing errors contribute substantially to uncertainty as to just how seismically sound the bridge is.

Meanwhile, a concerned whistle-blower has been frustrated in his attempts to bring these problems to light:

In January 2009, an anonymous whistle-blower sent a detailed explanation of Wiles’ fabrication problem, along with hundreds of pages of background files from testing logs and other Caltrans files, to the State Bureau of Audits.

The whistle-blower tried to follow up with the director of Caltrans several months later, adding: “There generally seems to be no interest in finding out about problems with testing.” Three years later, Wiles remained on the job, and was placed on administrative leave only after The Bee published its investigation—which involved reviewing 50,000 technical files, and consulting with the world’s leading experts in bridge construction.

As one of those experts opined: “They slipped up quite badly in their quality control.”

Yet despite this detailed investigation, the earlier whistle-blowing, lack of accurate tests, and entirely missing testing data, Caltrans continues to insist the new bridge is fine: “We are confident in the structural integrity of the main tower foundation and that the bridge will perform as designed to handle an extreme earthquake.”

Considering their track record, I think I’d prefer to travel on a private bridge. Competition, anyone? See how, in Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads.

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