If you need heart surgery, you don't seek out an internist. You look for the doctor specially trained and most experienced to operate.

Likewise, when facing questions about 32 bolts on the new Bay Bridge span that snapped due to corrosion, one should covet the best metallurgists.

Yet, despite the failure of the critical connectors, despite concerns about 2,210 similarly treated bolts, the three transportation officials overseeing bridge construction continue to resist an independent inquiry by top-flight metallurgists.

With the bridge opening delayed until at least December, there's still time. If transportation officials won't do it, Gov. Jerry Brown should step in. Without an independent investigation, there will always be doubt whether the critical connectors on the $6.4 billion span will withstand the next major earthquake.

The old and new eastern spans of the Bay Bridge come together at Yerba Buena Island on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area
The old and new eastern spans of the Bay Bridge come together at Yerba Buena Island on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The committee overseeing bridge construction is composed of the executive directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the California Transportation Commission and the state Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans.

On Monday, the three issued a scathing report on the bolt failures that highlighted a series of breakdowns by Caltrans, the bridge contractor and the designer. The choice of metal and the coating for the bolts didn't account for high-tension use in a corrosive environment. Required testing was not performed. Critical records were lost.


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Journalists had already revealed most of that. But it was the first time the three agencies, especially Caltrans, acknowledged the magnitude of the blunders. Nevertheless, the three officials remain ready to open the bridge as soon as a huge bracket that will substitute for the failed bolts can be installed. They say they can safely deal with the other bolts later.

Some are not so sure.

Metallurgists like Thomas Devine, former chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Pennsylvania professor Charles McMahon, and Yun Chung, a retired Bechtel engineer who specialized in high-strength steel analysis for the nuclear power industry, are watching from a distance with amazement as the oversight committee continues to lurch along without top-notch metallurgical review.

None of the three agency directors has metallurgical expertise. And, with no disrespect to the three members of the metallurgical team that was consulted, none holds the essential independence and heavyweight credentials. One works for Caltrans and another consults for the bridge contractor.

The Federal Highway Administration was supposed to act as a neutral backstop. But its team advising on the report consists of structural and research engineers.

While civil and structural engineers play critical roles in bridge construction, and often have some metallurgical knowledge, they are not experts in this field. This problem requires the best metallurgists -- with full independence to conduct their own inquiry.

Commuters and taxpayers deserve nothing less.