Debra J. Saunders
If the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were a football team, the coach would have been fired; the quarterback would have been dropped from the team; and the remaining athletes would have felt a pinch in their endorsement income.

But because the new eastern span was a government project that ran four times over budget and took more than twice as long to complete than was expected -- and the retrofit required a retrofit even before it was open to the public -- no individual will lose his job; no contractor will lose state business; and no politician need worry about this boondoggle sabotaging his re-election. Indeed, the California Legislature expressed its sorry sense of remorse by naming the western span after Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor, current San Francisco Chronicle columnist and chief cause of delay for what ballooned into a $6.4 billion project.

Last month, state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier presided over a hearing to examine a report commissioned on the project, "Lessons Learned From the Development and Construction of the Bay Bridge." Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, DeSaulnier has been searching for professionals who have shown "real alarm" about weld cracks, steel left to stew in water or the fact that 32 out of 96 key bolts cracked when workers tightened them.

Quality-assurance inspector Jim Merrill and engineer Doug Coe found cracks in panel welds. They testified that management discouraged them from putting their concerns in writing. When they persisted, Merrill's firm lost its contract, and Coe was transferred to the Antioch Bridge.

Caltrans suits denied that they were trying to get around the California Public Records Act or punish whistle-blowers. But DeSaulnier wasn't buying it. "It's hard for me to believe that this is a coincidence," DeSaulnier told them. Also: "I don't believe you."

The committee probe isn't over, but these are the lessons I've learned so far:

--No one will get fired.

In my spare time, I like to call folks involved in the project and ask whether anyone got fired over the bad bolts. It's sure to get a laugh.

Bay Bridge spokesman Andrew Gordon couldn't think of anyone. Ditto Bay Area Toll Authority Executive Director Steve Heminger.

"Well, I can tell you this: We fired about 29 people last year," answered California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly. That's good, I guess, but none of them was fired for the bridge bolt bungles, which have cost taxpayers $40 million, or the weld problems, which Heminger estimates cost $100 million.

Debra J. Saunders

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