Bay Bridge: Too Big to Fail


If the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were a football team, the coach would have been fired; the quarterback would have been dropped from the team; and the remaining athletes would have felt a pinch in their endorsement income.

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But because the new eastern span was a government project that ran four times over budget and took more than twice as long to complete than was expected — and the retrofit required a retrofit even before it was open to the public — no individual will lose his job; no contractor will lose state business; and no politician need worry about this boondoggle sabotaging his re-election. Indeed, the California Legislature expressed its sorry sense of remorse by naming the western span after Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor, current San Francisco Chronicle columnist and chief cause of delay for what ballooned into a $6.4 billion project.

Last month, state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier presided over a hearing to examine a report commissioned on the project, “Lessons Learned From the Development and Construction of the Bay Bridge.” Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, DeSaulnier has been searching for professionals who have shown “real alarm” about weld cracks, steel left to stew in water or the fact that 32 out of 96 key bolts cracked when workers tightened them.

Quality-assurance inspector Jim Merrill and engineer Doug Coe found cracks in panel welds. They testified that management discouraged them from putting their concerns in writing. When they persisted, Merrill’s firm lost its contract, and Coe was transferred to the Antioch Bridge.

Caltrans suits denied that they were trying to get around the California Public Records Act or punish whistle-blowers. But DeSaulnier wasn’t buying it. “It’s hard for me to believe that this is a coincidence,” DeSaulnier told them. Also: “I don’t believe you.”

The committee probe isn’t over, but these are the lessons I’ve learned so far:

–No one will get fired.

In my spare time, I like to call folks involved in the project and ask whether anyone got fired over the bad bolts. It’s sure to get a laugh.

Bay Bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon couldn’t think of anyone. Ditto Bay Area Toll Authority Executive Director Steve Heminger.

“Well, I can tell you this: We fired about 29 people last year,” answered California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly. That’s good, I guess, but none of them was fired for the bridge bolt bungles, which have cost taxpayers $40 million, or the weld problems, which Heminger estimates cost $100 million.

–When a project takes decades, big shots can always blame their predecessors.

There have been eight Caltrans directors and five governors since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which is what damaged the bridge. When I asked Heminger whether anyone involved in costing taxpayers millions of dollars will lose his job, he answered that the cracked rods are the result of “original sin” decisions made in 2001.

–Gov. Jerry Brown is missing in action.

Last year, when a reporter asked Brown about the Bay Bridge follies, he tossed off a scatological retort: “S— happens.”

Now his office simply refers me to Kelly. As Oakland mayor, Brown helped delay this project. As governor, Brown skipped last year’s opening festivities. The governor wants voters to forget the bridge debacles as he pushes a $68 billion high-speed-rail project. It, too, will take decades. It, too, will have an army of bureaucrats who will come and go, first pocketing paychecks and later deflecting accountability when things go wrong.

–Most politicians and bureaucrats don’t want to know what went wrong.

DeSaulnier asked Coe whether anyone from the governor’s office or someone higher than a project manager sought him out to find out what happened. Coe replied, “Nobody’s ever come to ask, and I find that fascinating.”

–Only the public will pay for these costly mistakes.

To fund the project, tolls rose from $1 to $6 during prime time. Tolls now cost a daily commuter roughly $1,500 per year. DeSaulnier looks at the cost of overruns and retrofitting the retrofit; it galls him that average people have to pay. “It brings out my inner Republican,” he told me.

Republican state Sen. Anthony Cannella is a civil engineer who serves on the transportation committee. Cannella noted that if he had forged inspection tests, as has happened at Caltrans, he “could go to prison.”

But it doesn’t look as if anyone who worked on the project will pay a personal price. “There’s a little pressure, and it goes away,” quoth Cannella.

And lastly: “The only person who’s held accountable is the taxpayer.”

Email Debra J. Saunders at: dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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