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Bridge Engineers Say California Ordered Flaws Overlooked

In their haste to finish the $6.4 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, California officials ordered engineers to overlook cracked welds and other flaws and to avoid documenting problems, two former workers told a state Senate committee yesterday.

“There was tremendous pressure not to stop during the procedure because of the race for time,” said Douglas Coe, a 25-year veteran of the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, who was removed from the project in November 2009.

The eastern section of the bridge, which carries 270,000 vehicles each weekday, partly collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. By the time it reopened in September, it was California’s most expensive public-works project ever, running almost $5 billion over budget and more than six years behind schedule.

Malcolm Dougherty, the Caltrans director, told the state Senate’s transportation and housing committee that project managers didn’t cut corners to speed up the work.

“The quality assurance on this project, in my opinion, exceeded the norms, not fell short,” Dougherty said. “It is safe. Quality is not compromised.”

James Merrill, then a senior engineer with the quality assurance company Mactec, told Senate investigators that his complaints about work done at Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., known as ZPMC and based in Shanghai, were rebuffed by Caltrans managers as “too rigorous,” according to a Senate committee report released Jan. 22.

Program Manager

Coe and Merrill said Tony Anziano, the bridge program manager for the state, instructed them not to document problems with the welds or other bridge components, so as to avoid creating records that reporters and others could find later. Anziano, speaking to the committee, denied this. He said he only told his subordinates not to write anything inaccurate.

“I never told any of these individuals to avoid putting things in writing to avoid the California Public Records Act,” Anziano said.

Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, a Democratic senator from Concord, accused the state transit chiefs of lying.

“I don’t believe you,” DeSaulnier said. “I don’t think the public has confidence in what you said.”

Even with the cracked welds -- which later were fixed -- and the breaking of 32 threaded steel support rods during testing last year, the bridge isn’t unsafe, Coe and Merrill said.

Coe said the bridge may require more upkeep than anticipated during its expected 150-year lifespan.

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