When the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge opens next year, some 100 million cars will drive across it annually. The bridge will cost an estimated $6.5 billion, making it the most expensive public-works project in the history of California. The point of this new span, as everyone knows, is to make sure there will be no repeat of the Loma Prieta earthquake, in which a section of the bridge collapsed.
That is why the reports from The Sacramento Bee are so troubling.
According to a recent series of investigative stories from the newspaper, Caltrans records indicate that of the 13 foundation piles holding up the bridge’s main tower, one is embedded in concrete that had not hardened according to industry standards. A second pile was never adequately tested, and those tests that were done suggest that it, too, may be structurally unsound, The Bee reported.
In addition, the newspaper discovered, tests that cleared many of the remaining piles were riddled with so many factual errors that independent consultants could not state with certainty that those piles have been reliably declared safe.
Finally, The Bee has reported that one of the Caltrans employees responsible for testing the piles’ structural integrity has falsified the results of tests on similar Caltrans structures — and did not make sure that his equipment was functioning before the tests, even though this is supposed to be standard operating procedure.
These reports raise the very troubling possibility that despite the billions California has spent, certain key parts of the new span may be vulnerable to a major quake — the very problem it was built to resolve.
So far, the private contractors have refused to respond to public inquiries, referring all questions to Caltrans. Gov. Jerry Brown’s office likewise referred all questions to the state Transportation Department. Caltrans has insisted that despite these irregularities, “substantial evidence” indicates that the tower, and the span, will be just fine in an earthquake.
This assurance is simply not enough to satisfy a public that has lived through too many devastating earthquakes. If Brown isn’t interested in getting to the bottom of these questions, then the state Legislature must. We urge members of the state Assembly and Senate to convene hearings to determine what went wrong during the testing phase of construction, retest the piles and discover once and for all whether the new Bay Bridge will be safe during a major temblor.
Vague assurances from the people constructing the new span about its safety are not enough. Independent investigations into the testing and safety are a must, and state lawmakers must do what Caltrans is clearly unwilling to do: get to the bottom of these questions before the next quake strikes.