SACRAMENTO -- Spiraling costs, delays and quality control problems with the new east span of the Bay Bridge show Caltrans needs stronger internal controls and more outside oversight and transparency with big projects, bridge experts told a state Senate committee Tuesday.
They agreed the $6.5 billion new span between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island is safe even though it was 10 years overdue and cost five times more than original estimates.
There was no consensus, however, about allegations whether Caltrans retaliated against and muzzled engineers who questioned quality control on welds and other bridge parts that could lead to higher maintenance costs.
Last week, an investigator for a legislative committee concluded that up to nine engineers on the Bay Bridge project were reassigned, demoted or fired to silence their criticism. The California Highway Patrol is investigating the allegations at the request of Brian Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency.
One of those nine engineers said Tuesday that Caltrans sent him to China to monitor quality control but did not listen to his conclusions that inspections were not thorough enough at looking for certain type of cracks in welds made by Chinese welders manufacturing bridge parts.
Kelly said the CHP has interviewed about 50 people, and he expects the investigation to be finished by the end of the month.
Keith Devonport said he believes cracks in the weld seams for the bridge deck could lead to higher maintenance costs in a bridge that is supposed to last 150 years.
"I think there is high probability there are embedded cracks in the welds," Devonport said via a video feed from Europe to the state Senate Transportation Committee. "I think it was wrong from an engineering point of view to ignore these welds."
Devonport said he urged more thorough testing for weld cracks, but Caltrans bridge managers in 2010 transferred him to a job in Oakland with little to do. He later quit.
Tony Anziano, head of the Caltrans toll bridge program, told the Senate committee that his transportation agency did not ignore quality concerns or silence critics.
"Their concerns were not ignored," he said. "They were discussed and resolved."
Anziano said Caltrans realized there were weld problems and ordered measures to fix them.
Anziano also said he left it to engineers to make engineering decisions, but in some cases, not all engineers on the project agreed with some decisions.
An engineer contracted to work for the prime bridge contractor, American Bridge-Fluor, said he fell out of favor when he pushed for more inspectors to check the Chinese welds.
Nathan Lindell said he was disturbed that the Chinese subcontractor making the bridge parts near Shanghai was not subject to the same control rules that an American company would face.
"I feel the rules were changed," he said.
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord -- the committee chairman -- said he is skeptical Caltrans has changed its work culture to tolerate critics.
"You're in denial about the cultural issues brought up," he said.
The head of a team of outside experts testified that his panel concluded that Caltrans used "appropriate" seismic criteria to design the bridge, but the many construction problems on the project "point to a lack of robust construction quality assurance programs."
Those problems could lead to higher maintenance costs to be absorbed by motorists who pay bridge tolls, said Reginald DesRoches, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said his agency has made several changes to improve quality control on big projects.
In a Caltrans report about lessons from the new bridge span, the department said problems occurred because the quality control team for work in China was not assembled until after the manufacturing there had begun.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.