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Tough questions for Caltrans in wake of engineer's fraud

November 22, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The head of Caltrans is under fire regarding the safety of California's bridges. It involves a state engineer charged with falsifying test results on several bridges, including one in Southern California. A state Senate committee hearing was held Tuesday.

Given California's car culture, drivers want to know that roads and bridges are safe. Safety and doubt have been on people's minds since the revelation that a Caltrans engineer cut and pasted data from one project to another instead of actually testing for safety.

"All the structures are safe; the quality of the Bay Bridge tower is not in question; action has been taken and processes have been changed," said Caltrans Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty.

Dougherty tried to assure a state Senate committee that the state's highways and bridges are safe for travelers because projects have been retested.

Questions about safety began after investigators discovered Duane Wiles, a now-fired engineer, falsified testing data on three projects, including a bridge over the 405 Freeway in Culver City and a highway sign in Alameda County.

It also took at least three years before his termination, suggesting that the Calrans culture is one that keeps shuffling bad apples around to different projects.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) also seemed upset that 24 hours before the hearing, CalTrans released hundreds, if not thousands, of documents pertaining to the investigation.

"We instinctively think you're hiding something," said DeSaulnier during a hearing.

"We need to track down wherever this individual worked, what he did," said Steve Heminger, executive director, Bay Area Toll Authority/Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Wiles also conducted safety tests on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which raises eyebrows even though further inspection did not reveal anything.

"There are no indications as of yet that he falsified any of that work," said Heminger. "But the fact that he was there and had falsified work elsewhere obviously raises a red flag."

The problems renewed calls for privatization.

"One of the advantages of contracting out services is you transfer the liability to the private entity," said state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), vice chairman of the Transportation Committee. "When the state falsifies data and has screw-ups, we're on the hook as taxpayers."

Some of the changes that Caltrans has already made include employees no longer being able to cut and paste data, and there's a time and date stamp on all changes to project records.

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