Coman Feher on the design selection process

FraudDaniel Coman’s critique of MTC’s Engineering and Design Advisory Panel (EDAP) selection process.

Why is the New Bay Bridge Plan Collapsing? Coman Feher article published in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 1999.


By Daniel Coman

Imagine yourselfor, if you are older, your son or daughtercompeting in the Olympic figure-skating world championship. You go to the competition after months of hard training to present your skill and capability in a contest of excellence. The moment comes, but just as you are to take to the ice, you see some of your fellow competitors climb into the jury box, take scorecards and sit down to watch and judge your performance. You are rather puzzled. You do your best, then watch in astonishment as your fellow competitorsnow as juryeliminate all but themselves from the competition. You are furious, you feel used and wronged.

Pretty far-fetched, you say? Alas, no. It is exactly what happened in the competition for concepts for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge East Span Replacement project which took place in May of 1997 in Oakland, California.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) reached the conclusion that the 1936 eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a portion of which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, should be replaced rather than retrofitted. Caltrans presented to the public their replacement project, which was a box-girder viaduct of reinforced concrete comprising some twenty 500-foot spans.

The public reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that Caltrans proposed to replace twenty percent of the viaduct with a cable-stayed structure "for aesthetic purposes," necessitating the realignment of the bridge on a longer, highly curved path north of the existing bridge.

The public was still not satisfied. A competition for concepts was hastily organized. Notices of this competition were not widely published in trade magazines. No attempt was made to alert bridge designers around the country, or around the world. One design team discovered the competition quite by chance, notice of which was buried in a story about the bridge in The San Francisco Chronicle. Thus began my involvement as a competitor who met the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's deadline for a concepts competition which was to occur in just ten days. I was invited, along with a partner, into the "process."

The hastily organized concourse took place on three consecutive days in May, 1997. MTC's Engineering and Design Advisory Panel (EDAP) were to be the jurors. On the second day, in the space between two presentations, a note was passed to the jury's chairman, who then spoke up to ask that members of the jury indicate, by a show of hands, whether they were associated with design teams making presentations before the jury. Many of the jury raised their hands. To our dismay and consternation, my partner and I watched as jury members rose from where they were sitting as members of EDAP to join in presentationsto themselves, as it wereof the concepts. It was a unique, and, one would hope, not pioneering event in the annals of competitions of any kind.

Grotesquely, that forced acknowledgment of fraud and dishonesty was subsequently and repeatedly used by the MTC as proof of probity, since conflict of interest was, after all, disclosed.

Of course it was never mentioned that the disclosure which came on the second day of presentations was forced, and, in any case, the conflict of interest was not disclosed to contestants in their competition materials. Indeed, who would be foolish enough to enter a competition against the jury? No contestant except the participating jurors, of course, knew the dismal truth.

Presentations finished, the jury proceeded to summarily dismiss all concepts not originating from its own members. The tapes and transcripts of these "deliberations" show that EDAP members expressed their likes, dislikes, visual and aesthetic commentary, for which, being mostly engineers, they were famously unqualified. It was a cursory show of duty.

Of 12 concepts before them, those eight which did not originate from their own ranks were disposed of within minutes. Our own entry was considered for all of 90 seconds before it joined those of the other seven naive designers.

At no point were any entries evaluated against criteria, including criteria contained in the competition materials. In fact, as is apparent from the transcripts, there was not even a hint of method, not even a feeble attempt at a formal evaluation procedure.

In fact, jury Chairman Joseph Nicoletti was questioned on this point as a result of our letters of protest. MTC Commissioner Tom Hsieh (who is an architect) asked Nicoletti to explain the evaluation method employed by his panel. Nicoletti responded that entries were judged informally, that the experience of jurors was sufficient.

So, after the four teams represented in the jury disposed of competition matters, the object of this exercise came to a contest of who should rake in the pot. Each attempt to eliminate one of them was met with instant protestation by its jury representatives. This business took more than a year and was resolved, compromise fashion, with the help of Caltrans. Caltrans wrote a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) which obliged the winning team to share spoils with the three losers. Insiders winall of them.

Of course they wrangled some more about which of four designs to approve since this would ultimately determine the size of their slice of the pie.

During all this, however, some members of the jury (EDAP) became increasingly uneasy, to the point that they started asking pointed questions, net before entertained, of a technical nature, concerning the safety and logic of retained designs, thus putting in jeopardy what had been so far a neat arrangement, a done deal. So, the jury insiders (those with designs in contention) formed a secret committee with Caltrans. Unbeknownst to the other jury members, they then proceeded to make decisions without seeking consensus or notifying the other members.

Thus, by the time the vote came for recommending a single design, only half of the original 36 jury members showed themselves in public, and the winning design gathered a mere 12 votes.

The pathetic idiocy of that design being so obvious and apparent, one disgusted, non-insider member of the jury went so far as to declare, "I am ashamed to be an engineer at the end of the 20th Century and here in this process."

There is no doubt that, as the record shows, this process was nothing more than a thinly but unsuccessfully disguised attempt at fraudulently securing a design contract and the millions of dollars attached to it. The whole process, starting with the "competition" was a ruse, outsiders being invited to submit entries in order to lend apparent legitimacy to an illegitimate process. We, and our few honest fellow competitors, came in good faith and found fraud and deceit.

We have been used by greedy, unscrupulous individuals as props in a staged play, to be discarded as soon as our usefulness ceases.

If all of this would have resulted in a timeless masterpiece, worthy of its incomparable location and surroundings, a genuine example of our present knowledge and technology, I, as a lover and seeker of excellence, would have put aside my humiliation and would have praised it.

Alas, what we got is as ugly as the deed that produced it, a grotesque monument to irrationality and incompetence, a frightening portent of decadence and corruption yet to come.



Why Is The New Bay Bridge
Plan Collapsing?

Why is the New Bay Bridge Plan Collapsing? link to article on San Francisco Chronicle site.

By Daniel Coman and Rick Feher

The most dangerous defects in buildings and bridges are bad foundations. And, as it turns out, processes, too, can come crashing down on shaky foundations.

For two and a half years the MTC and Caltrans attempted to shore up a deeply flawed process. Design selection, which was not about designing an excellent bridge but about who was going to get the money, was fraudulent.

In late April, 1997, with less than two weeks' notice, MTC announced a competition for bridge-design concepts. The authors of this article were invited to participate.

During three days of presentations, MTC's Engineering and Design Advisory Panel (EDAP) sat in judgment of a dozen proposals, including
incrediblythose of some of its own members, representatives of firms which habitually receive lucrative contracts with Caltrans.

On the second day of presentations EDAP members were asked by their chairmanafter he was handed a noteto indicate who among them were submitting proposals for their own consideration. Several raised their hands, raising eyebrows among astonished onlookers.

To those of us invited to submit proposals who did not have sponsors on the jury, and who were not told that the jury would be our competitors, this was a simple act of fraud.

The jury (EDAP) proceeded to summarily eliminate every proposal not associated with its own members. MTC anticipated a two-month process. However, the inability of EDAP to recommend only one of its two competing proposals drew it out for more than a year. Caltrans ordered further elaboration of both proposals at public expense.

This blatant conflict of interest was given a feeble attempt at explanation by MTC spokesman Steve Heminger. He said the bridge design community was not large enough to produce a separate jury and competitors. This incredible statement is refuted by numerous bridge projects which have been judged honestly and fairly. Norman Foster's two-mile cable-stayed viaduct in France, and Chris Wilkinson's state-of-the-art Millennium Bridge over the Tyne River in England, both under construction, are among the latest.

Early in the process the U.S. Coast Guard issued its requirement for clearance of 500 feet between piers immediately adjacent to Yerba Buena Island. This meant that a "signature" span was not needed. What purpose would it serve? An aesthetic "purpose," admitted Caltrans engineer Janise Sundstrom.

Both of EDAP's designs included the useless suspension structure. It would decorate the viaduct for an additional cost of up to $500 million. Its frivolity cancels any possible claim to beauty.

It would also be dangerous. A viaduct-plus-suspension design, which joins two bridge types having radically distinct seismic behaviors, repeats the sin of the original bridge which broke at just such a union. The assymetrical, self-anchored suspension structure, having an inherent narrow margin of acceptable motion, has been condemned by some of the world's leading structural engineers, including Mr. Manabu Ito, Japan's most eminent bridge engineer, and Professor Abolhassan Astaneh of U.C. Berkeley, an expert in the seismic behavior of major bridges.

What the selected proposal does very well is serve as a bridge between public money and the accounts of private engineering and design firms represented in EDAP.

Ironically, two proposals summarily dismissed were on southern alignments. (EDAP's own proposals are only possible to the north.) It is partly over this issue that local leaders have sought help from a Congressional delegation and the governor.

In April, 1997, Brian Maroney, Caltrans' Bay Bridge Project Manager, showed us a map.

"And what is that line?" we asked, indicating an unlabeled line south of the existing bridge.

"It's an alignment," he replied. "It's my favorite alignment. After all, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points."

There is no mandate for MTC's design. Consideration of rail had to be mandated by a ballot initiative because MTC refused to consider it.

Task Force Chair Mary King complains that Jerry Brown did not show up at any Bay Bridge meetings. She must be forgetting that Elihu Harris, not Brown, was Mayor of Oakland when MTC approved the design. Mayor Harris, a member of King's Task Force, rejected it with objections now spoken by Oakland's new mayor. Jerry Brown's concerns were public concerns, not private ones, and he stated them as soon as he was Mayor-elect, in a June 22, 1998 'Open Forum' essay which condemned both the process and the design.

Mary King said changes would cost five years' delay and waste $40 million already spent.

Open competitions take as little as five months. One recently opened January 4th and will close May 21st. Its crucial objective is housing the next 10 million Californians. Already, hundreds of submissions from around the world have been received.

California recently and wisely abandoned three failed computer projects after nearly $200 million bought only a bad process and defective products. Project Manager Maroney assured us that some of the $40 million spent on the bridge has bought geological analysis and planning which needs to be done in any case.

Better that MTC's irrational and dangerous bridge collapse in concept rather than after it is built.

Daniel Coman and Rick Feher, a design partnership in Sacramento, were participants in the Bay Bridge design selection process.

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