Report: Caltrans Overrode Bay Bridge Worries

The decision by California transportation officials to hire a Chinese company that had never built a bridge to make key components of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge's eastern section ended up being a costly choice in terms of both dollars and confidence in the span's structural integrity, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The Sacramento Bee said an investigation based on its review of more than 100,000 pages of construction records and emails found that the Department of Transportation picked Zhenhua Port Machinery to make the bridge's new signature tower and roadway because officials thought the subcontractor could do the work faster and for $250 million less than the next lowest bidder.

Instead, Caltans ended up paying the Shanghai company millions as a speed incentive even as it spent hundreds of millions more to fix problems with the firm's work, and overruns that exceeded the expected savings and contributed to the bridge's $6.4 billion price tag, the Bee reports.

The newspaper produced a timeline showing that the Chinese company's inexperience with U.S. construction rules became evident early on and that several Caltrans workers expressed concerns with Zhenhua's quality controls and the oversight being provided by the project's prime contractor.

Rather than risking delays, officials approved welding work that did not meet codes and will likely require expensive maintenance to overcome, the Bee said.

Brian Maroney, the chief Caltrans engineer who oversaw the project, defended the choice and said the initial concerns about Zhenhua had made officials extra alert to potential problems and the company had produced excellent results.

Two engineers who worked on the project, one for Caltrans and one employed by a contractor, told a California Senate committee in January that they were reassigned after they voiced objections about Zhenhua's work. They said they do not think the new bridge span that opened on Labor Day is unsafe, but the myriad construction mistakes could lead to expensive future repairs.

The newspaper also concluded that hiring an inexperienced company located so far away from San Francisco led to unnecessary travel costs, including more than $300,000 spent by a Caltrans chief executive who made at least 64 trips to Shanghai and stayed in a top-rated Marriott for $470 a night.

Caltrans told the Bee in a written statement that the executive's accommodations were reasonable and comparable to rates at other western hotels.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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