State

Panel challenges Caltrans on state bridge safety

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

California lawmakers are demanding to know whether bridges are safe in the state. They held a hearing Tuesday, asking a lot of questions about a fired engineer. Caltrans says state engineer Duane Wiles is accused of falsifying data on three construction projects, including the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

Given California's car culture, drivers want to know whether roads and bridges are safe. Doubt has been cost on people's minds ever since the revelation that a Caltrans engineer falsified data by cutting and pasting data from one project to another, instead of actually performing the safety tests.

"All structures are safe. The quality of the Bay Bridge tower is not in question," said Caltrans acting director Malcolm Dougherty. "Action has been taken and processes have been changed."

Dougherty tried to assure a Senate committee that the state's highways and bridges are safe for travelers because certain projects have been re-tested.

Questions about safety began after investigators discovered Wiles, a now-fired engineer, falsified testing data on three projects including a bridge over the 405 in Culver City and a highway sign in Alameda County.

It took at least three years before his termination, suggesting that Caltrans' culture is one that keeps shuffling bad apples around to different projects.

"The timeline is not an acceptable timeline," responded Dougherty to a question at the hearing about why things took so long.

Committee Chairman Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat, also seemed upset that 24 hours before the hearing Caltrans released hundreds, if not thousands of documents pertaining to the investigation.

"We instinctively think you're hiding something," said DeSaulnier.

"We need to track down wherever this individual worked, what he did," said Steve Heminger of the Bay Area Toll Authority.

Wiles also conducted safety tests on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which raises eyebrows even though further inspection did not reveal.

"There are no indications as of yet that he falsified any of that work," said Heminger. "But the fact that he was there and had falsified work elsewhere obviously raises a red flag."

The problems renewed calls for privatization.

"One of the advantages of contracting out services is you transfer the liability to the private entity," said St. Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. "When the state falsifies data and has screw-ups, we're on the hook as taxpayers."

The Bay Area Toll Authority has asked Caltrans for more documents, this time pertaining to the Benicia Bridge. Wiles also worked on that project.

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bay area, state, nannette miranda
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