As the saying goes: Where there is smoke, there is usually fire. The persistent "smoke" of apparent doctored data and suspicious information in the state's testing of bridges and roadways should have state officials and investigators diligently looking for flames.
The Sacramento Bee reported over the weekend that a Caltrans engineering team has found more anomalies within the state's safety testing on major projects, such as the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
There have been reports about irregularities in the past, but the latest ones seem to indicate a broader reach than had been expected.
In December, Caltrans engineers began examining records and tests as they looked into the work of a former technician blamed for falsifying tests. Emails and reports indicate that what they apparently found extended beyond that employee and called into question the validity of results for at least 23 tests on a number of major projects, including the Benicia Bridge, the Dumbarton Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
To this point, Caltrans' response has been neither comforting nor reassuring. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty simply said in a statement issued Sunday that the data cited by the newspaper were taken from a preliminary, draft work product. The paper reported that it obtained the information through Freedom of Information requests.
Dougherty told the paper, "It is irresponsible and premature to draw any
OK, we can buy that. It is too early to draw firm conclusions about the test data. But it is neither premature nor irresponsible to draw conclusions about Caltrans' handling of the entire matter.
Caltrans, it would seem, prefers to operate on this matter of monumental public import under a shroud of secrecy. Nearly all of the information we have about the testing abnormalities has come from newspaper reporters using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain and analyze data.
This is work that Caltrans should be doing as a matter of course on every one of its projects.
One might think that in the interest of transparency and public reassurance Caltrans would be willing to go the extra mile to explain to the public that it is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its projects.
In this case, it would have been far better had Caltrans chosen to release to the public the preliminary information about the 23 suspect findings. It then would have had the opportunity to stress that the findings indeed were "preliminary" and that its investigators were going to get to the bottom of the problem. Such an effort might engender feelings that the department had nothing to hide.
Instead, we are left to wonder just what Caltrans would have told us had it not been for the investigation by the Bee.
Caltrans officials must realize that this story is not going away and that the public deserves periodic updates on the status of its investigation.