PD Editorial: Cutting too many corners at Caltrans

  • FILE -- The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and its replacement eastern span, below, where the construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them were made in China, near the city of San Francisco off in the distance, May 11, 2010. China, in its continual move up the global economic value chain -- from cheap toys to jetliners -- now aims to be the worldÕs civil engineer. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

In California, there's nothing theoretical about bridges failing in earthquakes.

A 50-foot section of the Bay Bridge collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. So did a mile-long viaduct in Oakland. Five years later, elevated segments of Interstate 5 and Interstate 10 crumbled in the Northridge earthquake. Dozens of people were killed.

These are only the most contemporary examples, and no one knows this history better than Caltrans.

That makes the failure of seismic-safety rods on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge especially troubling. Coupled with the knowledge that Caltrans technicians falsified tests on 11 other big projects, it would be hard to blame anyone who is wary of using the new, $6.4 billion span when it opens.

The bridge project, which also has weathered design issues, skyrocketing costs and questions about steel quality and welding, was scheduled to open on Labor Day weekend. That's now in question.

Caltrans needs to explain why its engineers permitted the installation of steel rods that failed some of their quality-assurance tests. Thirty-two of those rods, part of the bridge's seismic safety system, snapped after being tightened.

<NO1><NO>It could take weeks or even months to figure out a solution, engineers said at a public meeting earlier this week.

What's worse, the Bay Bridge isn't the only project where Caltrans evidently cut corners at the risk of public safety.

Caltrans technicians falsified test data on 11 projects around the state, according to a state audit report issued last week. Among them was the new Benicia Bridge in Contra Costa County. Elaine Howle, the state auditor, called the actions "an inexcusable neglect of duty."

The auditor confirmed news reports that state officials initially downplayed or denied.

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