California Bullet Train Bridge a “Horrible Sequence of Mistakes”

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s diminished dream of connecting the city of Merced (population 83,964) to Bakersfield (population 390,233) has hit a snag. Several steel cables in a 636-foot-long bridge built to support construction of the project have corroded and snapped, forcing a new work stoppage on the years-long delayed project.

The Los Angeles Times‘ Ralph Vartabedian describes the ill-fated project’s latest “snafu”:

Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Times under a public records request show the steel supports snapped as a result of neglect, work damage, miscommunications and possible design problems.

“It is a horrible sequence of mistakes,” said Robert Bea, emeritus professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley and co-founder of its Center for Catastrophic Risk Management....

High-strength steel strands supporting the 636-foot-long structure began to snap on Oct. 22, one after another. Ultimately, 23 of the strands, which are composed of seven individual wires each, broke unexpectedly, according to rail authority documents and officials. The order to stop work was issued Nov. 4.

A forensic engineering analysis, obtained by The Times, found that the strands corroded from rainwater that had leaked into the internal structure of the bridge and then broke. The analysis was prepared for Tutor Perini by the forensic engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates of Northbrook, Ill.

The report focuses on the state’s multiple layers of management and its dependence on consultants to oversee the project’s bureaucracy.

Gov. Gavin Newsom told The Times in 2019 that he was “going to get rid of a lot of consultants,” but they remain integral to the project, according to engineering specialists and officials involved with bullet train planning.

“The layers on this project are onerous,” said William Ibbs, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who has consulted on high-speed rail projects around the world. “The levels of administration and review are very unusual. No one company is going to be wholly to blame if something goes wrong, because they can spread the blame around.”

“It isn’t getting any better,” said an executive at one firm working on the project, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “It is such a pillage of the taxpayers.”

A “horrible series of mistakes” and a “pillage of the taxpayers” doesn’t happen by accident. Nobody wants to be held accountable for the failure of California’s zombie bullet train project, and the people who know this best want to keep it that way, including Gov. Newsom, who never followed up his April 2019 promise to fix the state’s over-reliance on the consultant-based bureaucracy it created.

Because nobody’s truly responsible for it, California’s zombie bullet train continues lumbering on from one failure to another. It’s time to permanently put the project out of its sad existence.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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