This Is How Government Builds Infrastructure

It's not pretty.


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown is gearing up for an infrastructure-building spree, as he hopes to create the nation's first high-speed-rail system and bore giant water-moving tunnels underneath the Delta. Before the state moves forward with these multibillion-dollar projects, however, Californians might want to look at how the state has built other recent projects.

They got a rare opportunity to do so in recent days, as the head of the state Senate's transportation and housing committee released a preliminary investigative report into the California Department of Transportation's years-long effort to build the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The results are alarming.

"In the course of this investigation people with significant credentials have made serious accusations about critical components of the bridge regarding welds in the roadway decks and large bolts that fix critical bridge components," explained the report, commissioned by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat (and congressional candidate) from the East Bay.

"(T)here appear to have been chronic attempts to keep many of the serious safety allegations quiet," the report added. "Furthermore, this inquiry has come to the inevitable conclusion that there are legitimate concerns that this appears to be part of an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project."

Caltrans officials depicted whistleblower allegations as "differing engineering opinions," said that questionable welds were certified and assured senators that the agency carefully addressed all safety concerns. The Caltrans director said the bridge is safe and exceeded standards. But the findings are just the latest in a series of construction controversies and cost overruns that have plagued this signature project since 2005.

During a Capitol hearing on Friday, one Caltrans engineer detailed his two-plus year effort to alert the agency to Caltrans employees who were falsifying tests on the bridge. After being ignored, he finally took his story to a newspaper reporter.

The new Senate report detailed an incident where an engineer with a quality-assurance firm found hundreds of cracks in welds and rejected them given that the contract called for no cracks. Instead of fixing the problem, the engineer said "his Caltrans supervisors told him he was being 'too rigorous' in his findings" and the agency eventually switched to another quality-control firm.

The Senate's bridge report also details the mushrooming budgets on a project with costs that soared from $1.4 billion to nearly $6.4 billion. Overruns are par for the course for large projects, but the lack of transparency on quality-of-construction issues is far more troubling.

Reports about Caltrans' problems are nothing new. A 2013 report from the California state auditor confirmed those media reports that Caltrans workers had falsified test data on various projects, thus casting doubt on their structural integrity. A 2011 state audit found that Caltrans was awash in overruns in support costs, has done little analysis on the matter and failed to inform "stakeholders of the overruns."

Yet the Caltrans director was reconfirmed a few months ago with only three dissenting votes. Two of the dissenters were San Diego-area Republican Sens. Joel Anderson of El Cajon and Mark Wyland of Solana Beach. An April memo from Anderson's office criticized Caltrans' culture of cover-up and detailed its many problems as well as the poor condition of the freeway system the agency oversees.

"I believe the oversight function is far too modest; it should be dramatically expanded," Wyland told me. "The fiasco of the Bay Bridge is a perfect example, which should engender an investigation and complete restructuring of Caltrans."

DeSaulnier said his goal was to come up with specific reforms, such as creating a place where state employees can take their concerns about safety free from retribution. But another lesson seems clear: Maybe the state ought to at least try to straighten out its main transportation agency before embarking on massive new projects.

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  1. Just look at the Big Dig.

    1. I drove through the Big Dig tunnel less than a week after it opened and water was already pouring through the grout lines in the tile on the ceiling.

      1. Isn’t that the project that included bolting/gluing large flat concrete panels to the ceiling of tunnels, and one fell down? I remember reading that and thinking “Don’t the architects know about arches? They don’t need bolts and glue to avoid collapsing.”

        1. Arches are old news. Been there, done that. Architects and structural engineers like to try new things – it looks good on a resume.

          But you would think that the first thought after “let’s glue some concrete panels that weigh several tons to the ceiling” would be followed by “wait, that doesn’t seem safe.”

          The glue manufacturer (Power Fasteners – a standard-bearer in the industry) took the blame for claiming their epoxy would hold. If you ask me, though, the design was a bit short-sighted in the first place.

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        2. There’s an old saying in building design circles. “It takes a brave man to load his attachment in withdrawal only.” Ultimately it may be poor qc on the construction side that led to the failure, but the qc never should have been that critical.

          1. I just think that depending on the tensile strength of any adhesive in an architectural setting, with the possibility of deadly failure, is bizarre.

        3. Those ceiling panels weren’t even structural.

  2. The Senate’s bridge report also details the mushrooming budgets on a project with costs that soared from $1.4 billion to nearly $6.4 billion.

    I am beginning to think that the $200 Billion figure I have predicted for the HSR – if it is ever completed – may be wildly optimistic.

  3. …”The Senate’s bridge report also details the mushrooming budgets on a project with costs that soared from $1.4 billion to nearly $6.4 billion.”…

    And yet Moonbeam claims his choo-choo will cost, what was that again?
    …”plan that will invest billions of dollars”…
    They’ve stopped even hinting at what it would cost on the ‘official’ site:

    1. That website alone cost $1.4 billion.

    2. In all fairness, there’s really no way to estimate the cost of such a thing without essentially pulling numbers out of your ass.

      Does anybody today know what 800 miles of steel rail is going to cost in 8 years? No idea.

      Which is one of the many reasons why they just shouldn’t even have let this idea get outside whatever room it was first mentioned in.

      1. The initial claim was the choo-choo authority would ‘partner’ with private interests, and those funds were to be found prior to a whole lot more effort.
        Well, it shouldn’t be surprising that any possible ‘partner’ took one look at the fantasy numbers of riders, fares, the total lack of consideration for maintenance and the guaran-damn-tee that the SEIU was gonna be handed the labor contract by moonbeam and immediately ran as far from this as possible.
        Now Moonbeam’s trying to end-run on that issue and it’s open to question whether the courts are going to fold.

      2. Precisely why I laugh-choke every time I hear a progtard talk about government “investment”. True investment involves assessment of current costs plus opportunity costs weighed against likely consumer demand. That last bit is what they’re missing so they have no means of calculating and thus no way of saying, “let’s stop this foolishness.”

        1. “likely consumer demand”

          Therein lies the trouble. It is already a known fact that there is no consumer demand, which is why the only currently functioning passenger train service is Amtrak, which is run at the taxpayer’s expense on leased rails at a loss because so few people ride it.

          His Jerriness pushed through the HSR knowing full well there is no consumer demand for it whatsoever and it is absolutely certain to lose money hand over fist.

          “If you build it, they will come.”

          1. It is already a known fact that there is no consumer demand,

            To which the standard progressive response is “there would be if we didn’t build sprawling cities with huge suburban areas” followed by their own proposal to put everyone in crowded, European/Japanese style cities.

            1. Of course, it was progressives first derided crowded living conditions. So people sprawled out. Now the sprawl is what progressives don’t like.

              A progressive is a puritan, nothing less. And a Puritan is a goddamned religious fraud.

          2. Sorry to pick a nit but, whether there is or is not consumer demand matters less than whether the system in which the decisions to spend resources is *capable* of assessing demand. The lack of a means of objective calculation (profit/loss) means that motives have the same epistemological status as passing gas.

      3. Does anybody today know what 800 miles of steel rail is going to cost in 8 years?

        Uh. Actually, they should.
        a) The price of steel – all grades – has been dropping for decades.
        b) There have been numerous HSR projects built over the years in various countries around the world, all with cost over-runs, though none with over-runs in the normal magnitudes for California.
        c) Corporations built mega-billion dollar projects all the time. Frequently with over-runs, but never with the over-run multiples in California. (See the oil sands projects in Alberta – typical price tag $20 billion.)

        1. The price of steel actually fluctuates wildly, and is strongly geography-dependent. Maybe not in a commodities way – I know next to zero about stock market trading – but in the “I need some steel right here and now to build something” way.

          In 2007-8 the price of steel in CA was going up at a such a wild pace that construction bids that were held for 40-60 days prior to award were destroyed by inflation just in that period. The Bay Bridge sucking all the steel out of the local market was a big factor in that.

          Even when corporations build mega-billion dollar projects, they know that construction estimates on long-term large-scale projects are nothing more than educated guesses.

          The people who pushed the HSR bill through willfully misrepresented their numbers as being more concrete than they really were (no pun intended, as concrete has gone through recent periods of getting really expensive, too).

          1. If you know you’re going to go ahead with a long term project like that, you could hedge against a lot of the variability.

            The problem is that you’d be paying a small premium up-front versus rolling the dice, and since gov projects never care about keeping budget down post-approval, they wouldn’t see the point.

          2. Even when corporations build mega-billion dollar projects, they know that construction estimates on long-term large-scale projects are nothing more than uneducated guesses.


  4. BTW, for those who haven’t wasted time listening to weather, CA is in the midst of a pretty good drought.
    Now we had one of these back in the late ’70s, and you’d think if there was infrastructure that needed work, the ’70s drought would have suggested the state find or build storage facilities for water to save it from the wet years, wouldn’t you?
    Well, there has not been one (1) additional storage facility of any sort built since then.
    Yep, we should really trust the Ds in Sacto, shouldn’t we?

    1. Beyond that, they won’t even allow the reservoirs to fill all the way because the dams don’t meet the latest version of the seismic code.

      We’ll all die of dehydration, but thank goodness at least we’ll be safe when the Big One hits!

    2. They put a lot of water into the ground in Kern, IIRC. Other than that, I think diamond valley lake is the only one.

      1. Playa,
        I really thought there had been zero effort. So we got a 2-week reprieve?

        1. Sure, there’s plenty of water for you in CA if you want to grow rice in the desert.

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  6. I actually don’t think the water diversion tunnels are that bad of an idea, but I certainly think CALTrans should be kept far, far away from it.

    I’m fairly sure CALTrans is pretty much the only agency in CA that still largely carries out its own construction projects – design, build, inspect, the whole nine yards – and they are reliable only in cost overruns, delays, lack of quality control, and incompetent oversight.

    When state agencies put every little thing out to private contract, including project management, everything goes a lot more smoothly.

  7. water was already pouring through the grout lines in the tile on the ceiling.

    See how awesome government is? You got a free car wash!

    1. Couldn’t even catch a break on that! More specifically I should have said that I rode through the tunnel on the shuttle from the Airport.

  8. Since the TSA might be extended to nearly all forms of transportation in the future, I thought this would be pertinent. There’s an article out by a former TSA employee on Politico “Dear America, I Saw You Naked” which is a pretty captivating read. I highly recommend it.

    1. Look 2 articles down 😛

  9. Ahh, the Bay Bridge. Cost overruns started almost immediately. First, it was not enough to build a plan old suspension bridge or something like that, they needed it to be a landmark, so they created a radical design, mostly to pad the egos of various politicians and make sure the nice folks in the Berkeley and Oakland hills had a nice view. Then construction was delayed because it would have an impact not on wildlife, environment, etc, but rather Willie Brown’s plans for development of Treasure Island. After some lawsuits, it finally started, but they messed up and used Chinese steel, which upset a lot of people, then it turns out the system that was supposed to make it seismically safe (the whole impetus of replacing the original) was not tested properly and they had to redo it.

    Whenever somebody in CA complains about money for schools, environment, homeless, I point to the billions wasted on the Bay Bridge as an example of where a bit of fiscal discipline would have done the state a lot of good. And for some reason, nobody wants to admit that the idiots they are putting in Sacremento are the cause. The only solution is to give the TOP MEN more money and power to fix things.

    My only hope is that things get so fucking crazy even my fianc?e will realize California is a lost cost and I can get out of this place and find some relative sanity.

    1. The sad tragedy being that it’s not as if the new bridge is some jaw-dropping work of art. Sure, it’s pretty from a distance, and driving through the light towers at night is neat (if a little distracting), but otherwise it’s just sort of a run-of-the-mill traffic bridge with pre-cast concrete dividers on the side. The wrought iron work on the new Carquines Bridge looks a lot nicer.

      1. IMHO, the prettiest bridges are those built when they just let the engineers design the best bridge possible given the geographical and budget constraints.

        Once the “monument” people take over, everything goes for shit.

    2. Where would you go? This disease is very contagious…

      1. That’s the really hideous problem. I’ve been a lot of other places and I can’t tolerate any of them. It’s not a political thing – it’s largely climate.

    3. I’ve been saying the same damn thing!!!

  10. Was that the location in Defending Your Life?

  11. I just realized the massive amount of faith I place in humanity to drive my car 5 miles. And I’m not sure if any of this faith has rational justification (other than statistics – statistics which suddenly don’t apply when I want to use an airplane).

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