When a major section of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco collapsed during the 1989 Loma Preita earthquake, officials at the California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) leapt into action to replace the span. Their team of experts estimated it would cost $1 billion and be finished by 2003, give or take.

The bridge was completed late last year at a cost of $6.4 billion, so far. By the time all the bills and interest get paid, it will likely tally over $12 billion. Were there any warning signs that the project would be so late and so expensive? You tell me:

  • Was it wise to assign a lawyer to be project manager? He had no engineering training and his previous job was Assistant Chief Counsel for California. While he was overseeing bridge construction, he fired or reassigned several experts in welding, testing, and bridge construction when they raised concerns about safety and quality. A least two of these mentioned that the project manager “repeatedly told them not to record their concerns in writing, either on paper or e-mail, but rather to communicate orally,” according to a California Senate report that looked into the cost overruns on the bridge.

    Firing whistle-blowers is standard operating procedure (one of the unwritten ones) at Caltrans, where the motto seems to be “Go after the troublemaker, not the trouble,” according to a California State Senator.
     
  • Was it wise to hire a Chinese crane-building firm that had never built a bridge to handle the construction? Apparently the Chinese firm was the low bidder, coming in $250 million below the nearest competitor. What could go wrong?

    Soon after production began in China, it was discovered the firm was welding in wet and rainy conditions, a cardinal sin, according to welding experts. They continued welding in the rain for years on the project. Wet welds are prone to hydrogen contamination, one of the major causes of cracked welds. The company also stored completed bridge sections outside in the rain where they partially filled with water. A report was filed saying this would cause corrosion in inaccessible areas of the parts. The prime contractor dismissed concerns saying any rust “would be insignificant and unmeasurable.” Caltrans accepted this without comment for parts that would be suspended for 150 years (hopefully) in a foggy environment close to seawater.

    In a telling anecdote, the prime contractor and others kicked in a total of $500,000 to train Chinese welders in proper techniques. Many, if not all, of the workers skipped the training, and nothing was done.

I hope the bridge lasts its 150-year design life, but I fear that will have as much to do with dumb luck as good engineering.

(For more details on this project, check Charles Piller’s coverage in the Sacramento Bee.)