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California lawmaker wants better infrastructure oversight

The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during construction in 2011.
The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during construction in 2011. AP

For Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of California, the widely criticized San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is an example of how infrastructure projects can go poorly, and the reason behind his push for federal oversight on “mega-projects” in the future.

At a final price tag of $6.5 billion, far over budget and almost a decade past its scheduled completion date, the Bay Bridge has been investigated repeatedly for safety concerns and accountability questions with California’s Department of Transportation, Caltrans.

Going forward, the lesson of the Bay Bridge is that big projects need to be watched, said DeSaulnier, a Democrat who plans to offer legislation next session for greater federal oversight on infrastructure projects.

“If we’re going to do big projects, we’re going to do them on time and on budget and with transparency,” DeSaulnier said. “It’s that simple.”

His proposals, which failed as amendments to the transportation bill, include requiring peer review groups and comprehensive risk management plans for “transportation mega-projects exceeding $2.5 billion,” as a way to monitor costs and delays.

If we’re going to do big projects, we’re going to do them on time and on budget and with transparency. It’s that simple.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif.

To decide which projects will be completed first, they would be assessed with objective data, and states would have to publish that criterion. Contractors competing for the lucrative government projects would also be required to disclose their political donations.

Federal oversight is already a critical and helpful part of infrastructure building, said Will Shuck, the deputy director of external affairs at Caltrans.

“In terms of very public, very transparent, stringent oversight, that exists,” Shuck said. “It’s strong in a way that you can’t get around it.”

With the Bay Bridge project, the federal government has been fully involved, and helpful, he said, including with the bridge’s latest complication: dealing with anchor rods at the bottom of the towers.

“At each turn when there is problem-solving required we have asked for and received federal oversight,” Shuck said.

DeSaulnier investigated the Bay Bridge’s construction woes during his time as a state senator in California. He pushed for the state attorney general to look into criminal charges after Caltrans directors were implicated in ignoring and quieting failures. No wrongdoing was found.

Beefing up the peer review and risk assessment processes would help regulators catch conflicts of interest between Caltrans and its employees and the contractors who offer bids.

“All of them, in the aggregate, would have made a difference,” the congressman said of the amendments.

Ali Montag: 202-383-6033, @ali_montag

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