July 15, 1998

Crooked bridge

How the Bay Bridge design process was hijacked.

By Daniel Zoll


THE ORIGINAL BAY BRIDGE , completed in 1936, was hailed as a triumph of 20th-century engineering that would tie San Francisco's slim peninsula to the industrial cities of the East Bay and, by extension, the rest of the country.

Today, a growing number of critics say recently approved plans for the bridge's new eastern span represent the triumph of favoritism and backroom political dealing over sound transportation policy.

The local news media have reported extensively on the aesthetic shortcomings of the bridge design, which some have derided as a "freeway on stilts." In fact, with the exception of the sensible inclusion of a bike and pedestrian lane, critics say, the bridge design also fails the test of utility.

The bridge as designed would have exactly the same capacity as the overloaded current bridge -- although traffic over the bridge is expected to reach gridlock by the time the new structure is completed. Public transit advocates say the bridge design does not adequately address the need for a future passenger rail line on the bridge And questions remain about the bridge's seismic stability.

What virtually none of the news media has explained, though, is that the bridge's flaws can be traced directly to a design selection process that was rife with conflicts of interest. Most strikingly, many of the judges on the panel charged with evaluating proposed designs work for firms that submitted plans for the bridge.

For instance, Charles Seim -- an engineer with the T.Y. Lin International, the firm that won the initial $10 million bridge design contract -- was the chair of Caltrans's Advisory Panel on Conceptual Designs, a subcommittee that heavily influenced the selection process.

Caltrans's first design for the bridge, released in February 1997, was a simple viaduct -- the "freeway on stilts." In March 1997 public criticism of that design forced the state legislature to give the Bay Area's regional transit agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a hand in the design selection process.

MTC appointed an expert panel made up of engineers and designers to evaluate possible design concepts. The panel, called the Engineering and Design Advisory Panel (EDAP), was charged with holding a "workshop," or competition, to decide on a design concept for the bridge.

Sacramento-based Coman Feher Associates were among those who submitted a design to the bridge competition. At a May 13, 1997, workshop session, EDAP chair Joseph Nicoletti asked how many members of the panel were employed by firms that had proposals or intended to submit proposals in the workshop. About half the panelists present raised their hands, Coman told the Bay Guardian. Those members remained on the panel and evaluated designs -- including those of their own firms.

Coman and Feher said their design was summarily rejected on May 14, 1997, after a brief discussion.

"It seems we were invited to submit a proposal only to give apparent legitimacy to an illegitimate process," Coman and Feher wrote in a May 21, 1997, protest letter to MTC.

UC Berkeley structural engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh also submitted a design to EDAP. Had he known of the panelists' conflicts of interest, he told us, he wouldn't have bothered.

"They just wanted to drop everyone's proposals that were not [submitted by people] on the panel," Astaneh said. "The only proposals left on the table were from those people that were on the panel."

Enough engineers?

MTC spokesperson Steve Heminger told us the bridge design community is a fairly small group of people, and that it was inevitable that some panelists would be from firms that had submitted proposals. The show of hands at the May 13 meeting, he said, was evidence that any potential conflicts were disclosed to the public.

"We knew that there may very well be some members of the panel that may have some interest in bidding for a design with Caltrans," he told us.

EDAP member Steve Thompson, who represents the Bay Conservation and Development Commission on EDAP, disagreed.

"In the world of design engineers in transportation projects around the world, it would not be difficult to find disinterested parties to act as judges for interested parties," he told us.

Thompson said the biases of EDAP members toward their firms' designs were often transparent. "Many people made statements of preference that were clearly in support of [designs] that they were involved in," he said.

Jim Knox, executive director of government-watchdog group California Common Cause, said the process was clearly marred by conflicts of interest.

"It's absolutely improper to have members of an advisory body judging bridge designs which the firms that they work for have submitted," Knox told us.

EDAP members were not choosing a specific contractor but a generic design concept. Caltrans retained the authority to select the contractor who would actually design the bridge. But EDAP panelists acted as gatekeepers in the design process.

A 'laughable proposition'

The two concepts EDAP recommended to MTC combine the viaduct concept with a single-tower cable-stayed design and a single-tower suspension design. Both designs represent just one-fifth of the bridge's eastern span; the rest of the span would be essentially Caltrans's original viaduct. The tower elements EDAP recommended are just expensive aesthetic adornments, Coman said.

"They are trying to say that as a general matter, on that site no other type of bridge [besides the viaduct design] can be built," Coman said. "It's just a laughable proposition."

Although Caltrans ostensibly gave MTC input into the design, it never let the process too far out of its control.

Though EDAP was created by MTC, Caltrans took the unusual step of creating an EDAP subcommittee, the influential Advisory Panel on Conceptual Designs, and appointed as chair Seim, of T.Y. Lin International. In December 1997, after receiving submissions for full designs from four consortiums, Caltrans awarded the initial contract to design the bridge to a consortium headed by T.Y. Lin International.

Seim said he was unable to comment on his apparent conflict of interest due to a Caltrans gag order that bars contractors from talking to the media.

Caltrans toll bridge program manager Denis Mulligan defended the design selection process and Seim's involvement. He said the contract was awarded under the same open, competitive process Caltrans uses for all other design contracts

"[Seim] does not play a prominent role in their [design] team," he said. "They were the most qualified team."

EDAP's narrow focus also frustrated some EDAP members. Member Roumen Mladjov told us that he would have liked to see more choices and that he supported having an international design competition.

"We very clearly stated that we don't see the design we are looking for in the final selection between the two single-tower options," Mladjov said.

Mladjov speculated that some of his fellow panelists supported certain designs because they knew what Caltrans was after -- and what their own firms had designed. "They wanted to get [the contract], and they are just looking for what Caltrans wanted to have," he said.

MTC Bay Bridge Task Force chair Mary King responded to criticism of the process in a recent Chronicle opinion piece, calling the design selection the result of "16 months of design review, millions of dollars of taxpayer expense, and literally thousands of comments from the public."

But even Caltrans's own Advisory Panel on Conceptual Designs admitted in a May 1997 report that not all possible design concepts had been adequately considered.

"The short timeline set by MTC for the concept selection does not allow sufficient time for the normally needed engineering, design and development, seismic analysis, quantity determination, and construction cost estimates of all concepts," the report stated.

Oakland mayor-elect Jerry Brown speculated that because Caltrans wanted to control the process, the agency didn't let the design get far from its initial concept.

"A freeway on stilts is something they feel very comfortable with," Brown said.

Trains derailed

Another casualty of the fast-tracked process was the idea of a rail link on the bridge, transit activists say. "If we're going to see getting more cars off that bridge, we're going to need more rail capacity," BART board member Tom Radulovich told us.

According to Mladjov the panel was specifically instructed by MTC not to consider any rail element. Mladjov, a structural engineer, said it was absurd to build a bridge with the same traffic capacity as the existing one.

"There is no reason to build a bridge that is obsolete when you finish it," he said.

Astaneh and others have also criticized EDAP and MTC for failing to fully examine the seismic performance of the chosen design.

"There is no experience on actual seismic performance of this bridge," he wrote in a June 20, 1998, letter to the MTC Bay Bridge Design Task Force. "This system has many inherent flaws that may not be possible to remove during the final [design] phase."

Terry Roberts, Oakland's director of public works, said the product reveals the problem with the process.

Roberts said his office was studying other possible designs that meet structural safety requirements and can be built for around the same cost.

"The sad part about the process is that it really didn't look seriously at those kind of designs," Roberts said. "The bottom line is, if we are going to spend $1.5 billion on a bridge that's going to be in our front yard for 100 years, why wouldn't we want a world-class design?"

Copyright © 1998, San Francisco Bay Guardian

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