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Playing Bridge with Taxpayers’ Money

Monday January 27th, 2014   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 2:16pm PST   •  

bridge_rectangleThe new eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge cost $6.4 billion, with cost overruns of some $5 billion, and its opening was delayed 10 years. That amounts to waste on a colossal scale, but according to testimony in a State Transportation and Housing Committee hearing last Friday, other concerns remain for all Californians, and they go far beyond safety.

Several witnesses testified in considerable detail that in a push to complete the project Caltrans bosses compromised quality by ignoring problems with welds, bolts and rods. They opted for a kind of steel prone to embrittlement, a metallurgist testified, and that is why a number of rods cracked. It was the sort of problem that prompted California governor Jerry Brown to say “s— happens.”

Caltrans outsourced work to China, which as one engineer testified, sends some of its own bridge welding projects to England. On the Bay Bridge project the Chinese produced welds with cracks. A full 750 panels needed to be repaired. As witnesses testified, Caltrans bosses ignored and downplayed these costly problems, reassigned the whistleblowers, and even told engineers not to write things down to avoid public disclosure.

Caltrans bosses rejected this testimony, downplayed the problems, and said the bridge was safe for 150 years. Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who conducted the hearing, said “I don’t believe you.” He had observed that “Caltrans audits itself,” unlike procedures in states such as Texas, and that in Caltrans “you don’t go after the trouble, you go after the troublemaker.”

The senator cited “a deliberate and willful attempt to obfuscate what is happening to the public.” But he did not follow up on one whistleblower’s call for a “criminal investigation,” a perfectly reasonable request. That surely pleased the Caltrans bosses. Along with their obfuscation, the hearing revealed that they essentially got away with it, and that California is woefully lacking in accountability.

DeSaulnier, meanwhile, did prove candid about his own concerns. The billions in cost overruns, the ten-year delay, and safety issues had eroded confidence and made Californians “adverse to taxes.” These taxes were needed for “infrastructure” projects that DeSaulnier claimed would promote economic growth.

He gave no examples but the prime candidate is surely the state’s high-speed rail project. According to its supporters, the “bullet train” will solve transportation woes, aid the environment, and boost the state’s economic fortunes, all for only $68 billion. Californians tempted to believe that should consider the Bay Bridge experience.

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January 2014