It has been nearly 24 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake. Since then, we have known that the eastern span of the Bay Bridge will not withstand another large quake.
As plans were developed to build a new eastern span, we were promised a one-of-a-kind bridge priced at a little more than $1 billion. This new span was supposed to be visually stunning and -- above all else -- safe enough to survive a major seismic event.
The cost of the new span is now $6.3 billion and growing. There also have been very real concerns raised about the safety of the new span. We have spent the past two months learning of busted bolts on the eastern pier of the new span. Media reports have suggested that Caltrans may have gone against its own protocol in using this type of bolt.
We need to give Caltrans the time to implement its solutions to fix the bolts, so that when the bridge opens it is safe for the thousands of commuters who drive across it each day.
Opening a safe bridge must be our top priority, but there should be an ongoing investigation into the busted bolts. Tuesday, I will be chairing a Senate Transportation and Housing Committee hearing on the Bay Bridge. I called this hearing because the commuters, who have seen their tolls more than double to pay for this bridge, deserve answers.
We need to know what caused the bolts to break and why they were even used in the first place. There are many questions that must be answered at an institutional level by Caltrans, and the right people need to be held accountable.
After the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the Reagan administration put together the Rogers Commission to investigate what allowed such a disaster to occur. The commission discovered that sometimes large organizations can institutionalize an acceptance for safety risks that should not be taken -- sometimes referred to as "normalization of deviance" -- and I think that is analogous to the Bay Bridge situation.
There are many bright, talented people who work at Caltrans. Unfortunately, it has become a far too insular institution. The culture at Caltrans must change.
I have introduced legislation this year that I hope will begin to bring greater transparency and accountability to Caltrans.
My bill, SB 425, aims to begin fixing the "peer review" process of our state's public works projects. Public works projects touted as "peer reviewed" should live up to the public's expectation of what the term really means. SB 425 sets the standard that a peer review is transparent and has been conducted by panelists free of conflicts of interest.
My bill, SB 486, creates the Office of Legal Compliance and Ethics. Currently, Caltrans' Audits and Investigations Division reports to department management. We cannot have an agency reporting its investigations to itself and expect to get fully transparent results.
The Office of Legal Compliance and Ethics will be responsible for preventing and detecting serious breaches of Caltrans policy, and ensure that audits and investigations are accountable to the public -- not just the higher-ups at Caltrans.
Ultimately, these bills are just the first step in the long-term project of changing the culture at Caltrans. Caltrans must realize it has to provide value to its customers -- the commuters and taxpayers.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier is chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. He represents the 7th Senate District, which includes most of Contra Costa County and parts of Alameda County.