Steve Heminger: Bridge reporting, editorial off base

July 14, 2014 

The new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is not only an “architectural wonder,” as the Merced Sun-Star’s June 30 editorial grudgingly concedes. It is also safe and built to last. After 21/2 years of reporting, The Sacramento Bee has yet to provide any conclusive evidence to refute that simple fact.

Instead, we have been treated to a steady stream of innuendo, “expert” opinion from college professors who have never built a bridge, and sensationalized headlines that often bear no relationship to the news story beneath them. The Sun-Star’s editorial, based in part on The Sacramento Bee’s reporting, repeats the pattern, with several errors or misstatements in the space of 15 short paragraphs.

The Sun-Star first refers to a California Department of Transportation bridge inspector who “falsified test results.” In fact, there was such an inspector, but those test results were not on the Bay Bridge.

The Sun-Star next waves the flag of protectionism, and blames the state for not “buying American steel and employing U.S. steelworkers.” In fact, the Bay Bridge project, like any Caltrans job, was governed by the State Contract Code, which requires that construction bids be given to the lowest responsible bidder. That protects taxpayers.

In a related charge, the Sun-Star complains that the Chinese steel supplier for the self-anchored portion of the new east span “had never built a bridge before this project.” Well, that would be except for the three steel bridges it fabricated before the east span – the Donghai bridge in Shanghai, the Golden Ears bridge in Vancouver and the Incheon bridge near Seoul.

The Sun-Star claims to be “dumbfounded” that there has not been greater federal oversight of the Bay Bridge project. Actually, what is dumbfounding is that the Sun-Star’s editorial writers didn’t bother to read their own news clippings, which reported multiple instances when we invited the Federal Highway Administration to peer-review our approach to challenges that arose during construction of the new span.

Finally, the Sun-Star calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to convene a “full and independent investigation” of whether the new bridge is seismically sound. By my count, this would be the 15th outside look at some aspect of the new east span project, including the ongoing peer review conducted by three members of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.

I seriously doubt that another investigation would satisfy The Bee’s reporters or Sun-Star’s editorial writers. After 21/2 years, it is clear The Bee and Sun-Star are not going to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Steve Heminger is chairman of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, which was created by state law to oversee the new east span project. Its regular quarterly reports – which have been public since 2005 – can be found at http://baybridgeinfo.org/tbpoc.

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