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November 28, 2012

Editorial: State's peer review panels for Bay Bridge, other megaprojects require revamping

Panels of experts assigned to review major state projects are only credible if they are transparent and independent.

Panels of experts assigned to review major state projects are only credible if they are transparent and independent.

Because the one that Caltrans trotted out to look at bridge safety was far from the ideal, it's imperative that state lawmakers explore how to make the panels better.

The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee plans to do that at a hearing today. Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, says legislation may be needed to make sure peer review panels are properly playing their oversight role.

There are two core principles.

One is transparency. While private sessions may be needed so that there can be frank dialogue and so that Caltrans and other state agencies aren't put at a negotiating disadvantage if contract changes are needed, there ought to be some meetings held in public. Also, there should be a public record of what is discussed, any recommendations and any action taken on that advice.

The second is impartiality. While the pool of top-notch experts may be somewhat limited, much more effort should go into finding individuals without conflicts of interest.

By those standards, the Caltrans Toll Bridge Seismic Peer Review Panel – which examines the design and construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and which is looking at other toll bridges getting seismic upgrades – has fallen woefully short.

The panel did not let the public into any of its meetings on the Bay Bridge. The Bee's Charles Piller found out that it typically met at the offices of T.Y. Lin International, the lead designer of the bridge.

Don't they realize how bad that looks?

Three of the panel's four members had prior financial or professional ties to Caltrans or bridge contractors; three served on another committee that chose the Bay Bridge design. According to the transportation committee's staff report, panel members were not required to file financial disclosure statements until July, four months after they submitted their report on the bridge.

How can the public trust that they did a clear-eyed evaluation of Caltrans and its contractors?

It came as little surprise that the panel agreed with Caltrans that there are no safety problems with the tower of the new Bay Bridge, even though an investigation by The Bee found significant design and testing concerns.

Some outside experts have disputed the peer review panel's conclusions. At the request of DeSaulnier and two other senators, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office is putting together a second panel of experts who will look at the Bay Bridge's safety, probably early next year. The $6.5 billion eastern span, the most expensive public works project in state history, is scheduled to open by next Labor Day.

Caltrans stands by the work of the bridge panel, which it says has included some of the most esteemed engineers in the field. It also says that its overall peer review system isn't broken.

There is definite room for improvement, however. This is important not just for the Bay Bridge. There is already a peer review panel for the $68 billion high-speed rail project, and there could be ones for other mega-projects on the drawing board, including the Delta tunnels.

Peer reviews can make sure these projects are built right, but only if the panels, themselves, are put together correctly.

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