Questions raised on new San Francisco Bay Bridge structural tests

The spire of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span majestically climbs hundreds of feet above the bay, an emerging icon of California's engineering and aesthetic prowess.

Scheduled for completion and public use in 2013 at a projected cost of $6.3 billion, the bridge is the largest public works project in state history. Its designers placed one quality above all others: the strength to withstand the strongest anticipated earthquake.

Yet a Bee investigation has found that the state Department of Transportation technician who conducted key testing to ensure structural integrity of the span's foundation was later disciplined for fabricating test results on other projects. The technician, Duane Wiles, also failed to verify that his testing gauge was operating properly, as required by Caltrans to ensure the gauge's accuracy, before he examined parts of the Bay Bridge tower foundation.

When Caltrans officials became aware of the problems with Wiles they did not thoroughly investigate his earlier work - despite public safety concerns raised by other test employees and an anonymous whistleblower.

Until contacted by The Bee for comment, Caltrans had not assessed Wiles' work on the Bay Bridge tower.

Although Caltrans says the bridge is safe, The Bee's findings raise questions about its structural integrity that are not easy to answer. Outside experts say the bridge tower foundation probably is reliable but suggest further review.

Questions about Caltrans' testing extend to other projects. A Bee examination of nearly 50,000 test documents regarding foundations for bridges, overpasses and other freeway features showed that structures across the state were approved after questionable work by Wiles. In three confirmed cases, Caltrans documents show that he fabricated results.

Wiles also routinely discarded raw data files that provide the best information to detect fabrications.

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