How Caltrans’ choice of an inexperienced company left structural doubts and cost taxpayers
By Charles Piller, June 8, 2014
The new Bay Bridge suspension span. Part of the new $6.5 billion
structure, the suspension span, despite its innovative design,
experienced construction problems that raised doubts about its
durability. These include suspect concrete in the tower foundation,
broken anchor bolts, rust on the main cable, and cracked roadway welds.
The Chinese company hired to build key parts of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had never built a bridge.
Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd., after all, was a manufacturer of giant cranes for container ports.
The California Department of Transportation agreed to contract
the company known as ZPMC in 2006 because it had established a
reputation as fast and cost-effective, offering savings of about $250 million compared to the competing bidder.
Bridge officials were racing to finish the span, pushed years behind
schedule and billions of dollars over budget by political squabbles and
construction delays. Fearful that the old bridge might not survive a
major quake, they wanted speed and savings.
Caltrans asked an outside expert to assess whether ZPMC could do
the job, and Jim Merrill, a senior materials contractor for the bridge
project, gave the company a “contingent pass.” He also labeled it “high
risk.” Among other problems, ZPMC didn’t have enough qualified welders
or inspectors, the audit noted, and routinely welded in the rain, a
basic error that often causes defects.
Undeterred, Caltrans signed off.
The company later boasted of “zero defects” in a news release.
Brian Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, said in a recent interview
the audit’s “contingent pass” heightened vigilance to head off
But Caltrans’ decision to hire an inexperienced Chinese company,
unaccustomed to the rigor of American construction rules, to fabricate
the suspension span’s signature tower and roadway partly explains why
costs ballooned to $6.5 billion and misgivings persist about the quality
of the bridge.
Caltrans continued to bet on ZPMC by relaxing U.S.
standards when the firm couldn’t finish fast enough.
Caltrans overrode bridge welding codes and
near-universal requirements for new bridge construction when it deemed
many cracks in welds produced by ZPMC inconsequential and left them in
place to hurry construction along, Caltrans documents show.
Maroney said ZPMC’s automated welding process produced excellent
results. Caltrans documents show that it also paid hundreds of millions
of dollars to fix problems of ZPMC’s making, even as it delivered a
bridge riddled with cracked welds.
If ZPMC couldn’t build the bridge to the required quality, “it
should have been taken away from them and built someplace else,” Doug
Coe, a high-level Caltrans engineer in China during much of the job,
said at a California Senate committee hearing in January.
“The race for time” created overwhelming pressure to keep moving
as planned, he said. “But there’s no excuse for building something
defective like that because we are in a race for time.”
The litany of Bay Bridge problems exposed in recent years by The
Sacramento Bee and others includes suspect foundation concrete, broken
anchor rods and rust on the suspension span’s main cable. Yet beyond
those investigative findings, bridge engineers say, the decision to hire
ZPMC will haunt the new span and the traveling public for generations
In an investigation of the welding issues, The Bee reviewed more
than 100,000 pages of construction records and emails by bridge
officials, interviewed technical experts and examined testimony at the
The state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the
California Highway Patrol are investigating how the weld problems were
handled. (In a written statement, Caltrans declined to comment on the
At the Senate hearing, bridge officials dismissed quality
concerns as baseless. “It has been a winding road to get here, but we
are here. We have achieved seismic safety for the bridge,” said Caltrans
Director Malcolm Dougherty.
But committee chair Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, suggested
that Caltrans had tried to cover up serious problems with “a deliberate
and willful ... attempt to obfuscate.”
His comments were echoed by experts inside and outside Caltrans –
some of whom supervised the welding and warned of serious flaws. They
said the state bought a bridge likely to require extraordinary and
“If you have to go up on the decks and start taking lane closures
and scrape off all the asphalt and do deck repairs for months and
months and months, that certainly could affect public welfare,” Coe said
at the Senate hearing.
Professional engineers, he said, must report “any irregularities
that could affect public welfare.” That’s what Coe and his colleagues
“But (Caltrans) has the prerogative to accept these (cracked or suspect parts), ‘fit for purpose,’ ” Coe said. That’s what Caltrans managers did.
Caltrans engineer Bill Casey (left), inside a Bay Bridge roadway girder.
The Chinese builder of the new span’s roadway had trouble welding the
complex roadway girders, leaving many cracks that some engineers fear
could cause structural problems.
2006-07: Lapses from start
Shortly before ZPMC was hired, the Legislature empowered a new
group, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee – the heads of
Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll
Authority – to supervise construction on the troubled project. In
October 2006, in what would become a refrain, the committee called
accelerating construction “Job One.”
Caltrans’ prime contractor on this part of the bridge was ABF, a
joint venture of American Bridge Co. and Fluor Enterprises Inc. ABF,
with Caltrans’ approval, hired ZPMC as a subcontractor. In choosing a
Chinese firm, Caltrans gave up federal money and angered U.S. labor
advocates and steel-makers.
Maroney said no U.S. firm could have built
as quickly a bridge so innovative and complex. ZPMC, with its vast
capacity and ultra-modern equipment, was the right choice, he said.
In December 2006, ZPMC began making roadway “box girders.” These box
shells, flat on top for the roadway, weigh up to 1,669 tons each. ZPMC
would weld thick steel panels together to create the boxes. The finished
girders would be shipped to Oakland and welded together there to form
the suspension span’s 2,047-foot roadway.
But after a month, the work already was going sideways. A
Caltrans inspector caught ZPMC employees using the wrong radiation
source from the wrong direction to check steel plates for flaws. ABF
didn’t catch the lapse.
Caltrans recorded the episode in a “nonconformance report,” a
technical memo detailing contract violations and specifying corrections.
The reports, many citing multiple errors, averaged one every day or two
– adding up to 965 in less than five years. ZPMC welders made errors,
and the firm’s inspectors overlooked those flaws day after day.
Months after ZPMC won the job, Gary Pursell, a high-level
Caltrans engineering supervisor on the job, noted in his job diaries
that the firm lacked basic quality control. The company hired for speed
was soon behind schedule, Pursell wrote.
Caltrans diaries also indicated that ZPMC violated the job contract
by delivering key documents in Chinese instead of English. ABF lacked
sufficient quality-assurance staff to speak directly to its own
subcontractor – also a contract violation. “Although I can jump in when
misunderstanding between ABF and ZPMC developed,” Caltrans engineer
Stanley Ku wrote in a report, “I do think ABF should have a (quality
expert) who can speak Mandarin to reduce the ‘misunderstanding’
Cracked welds appeared regularly, particularly in roadway box
girders – parts that challenge even the best welders. Yet the oversight
committee created by the Legislature, charged with watching the clock
and budget as it protected public safety, knew that ZPMC welders lacked
the required experience, according to the committee’s May 2007 meeting
Getting ZPMC to comply with the contract “was a real struggle,”
Michael Forner, a retired Caltrans principal engineer who served as one
of the job’s top officials, said in an interview. ZPMC subcontracted
work out to other companies, he said, making it harder to ensure that
welders had proper training.
“They basically rented out the shop,” creating a chaotic job
site, Forner said. Workers flooded the plant on Changxing Island at the
mouth of the Yangtze River – then a 4-mile boat ride from Shanghai. “It
was hard to get the bus from the dock to the shop, there were so many
people riding bikes and walking.”
ZPMC had been working under the contingent pass from the 2006
audit while moving to fix its operations. In August 2007, Caltrans
auditors approved ZPMC outright, although the firm still lacked adequate
quality control, even for “fracture critical” materials, according to
the audit report. Fracture critical means the failure of such materials
could “result in a partial or full collapse of the bridge,” according to
the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
In October 2007, Caltrans told the oversight committee that ZPMC was
well qualified and watched carefully by ABF, the oversight minutes
But Caltrans documents state that ZPMC often ignored or defied the prime contractor and Caltrans alike – and got away with it.
Beneath the suspension span. The bridge tower, seen through gaps between
the roadway girders, holds up 28 girders and their connecting
crossbeams, some of which suffered weld cracks during construction.
2008: ZPMC rebels
Incorporated in 1992, ZPMC is one of the world’s leading builders
of port machinery. Although the firm’s stock trades publicly, it’s a
subsidiary of government-controlled China Communication Construction Co.
Ltd., among the world’s largest companies. ZPMC officials did not
respond to requests for comment.
The Bay Bridge project showed that it had joined the realm of
ambitious Chinese enterprises that took on the most complex and
high-profile jobs, according to ZMPC’s website. A “strict and
responsible spirit,” it said, led U.S. partners to trust and admire
In early 2008, at a meeting with Caltrans and ABF, the Chinese
firm showed open defiance, according to a Caltrans memo about welder
performance. “ZPMC stated that they, as the fabricator, will decide
whether or not they will adhere to the agreed upon (quality-test)
procedures. To this date, ABF has not provided the Department with
Rick Morrow, a supervising Caltrans engineer, wrote in his job
diary, “Is ABF unable to control ZPMC or doesn’t want to? No follow
through on agreement and ZPMC ignored the ABF stop order. ... ”
Philip Stolarski, head of Caltrans materials testing, testified
at the January Senate hearing that ZPMC treated contract requirements as
Caltrans would not permit interviews with Morrow or Stolarski for this story.
Brian A. Petersen, project director for ABF, declined to comment. A
written statement from ABF said, “While there were many unique
challenges on a project of such complexity ... we were able to achieve
Seismic Safety and successfully open the bridge to traffic this past
Fall and accomplish this feat in a safe manner.” The statement noted
that ABF is cooperating with the CHP investigation.
Bay Bridge roadway girder. This box girder, near the east end of the
suspension span, was built late in the process, after some quality
control lapses at the Chinese builder of the new span’s roadway had been
In March 2008, after more than a year of work, hundreds of weld
cracks still appeared. Stolarski directed Merrill, the quality
contractor, to alert Peter Siegenthaler, the most senior Caltrans
manager for what the department called “Team China.” Merrill recommended
that production on the bridge deck panels be halted until ZPMC could
produce reliable parts.
“Very shortly after that I was told (by Siegenthaler that) I was
no longer authorized to write recommendations on state letterhead,”
Merrill said at the hearing.
Siegenthaler, who left Caltrans in 2011, declined to comment.
Caltrans responded in a joint statement from many unnamed officials.
It said that Merrill’s memo to Siegenthaler “was shared with the project
team and it was the judgment of the project team that it was in the
best interest of the project to continue production.” Actual or possible
flaws were repaired as required by the contract, the statement noted.
Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, said he held Merrill in
high esteem, and still seeks his advice on engineering issues. Maroney
never heard about Merrill’s suggestion to halt production, he said.
“There was a goal that ‘Team China’ made decisions in China.”
Welding problems continued. “Transverse” cracks – crossing a weld
rather than following its length – which can grow into adjacent base
metal and cause a box girder to fail, had become common, according to a
June 2008 Caltrans report. ZPMC’s repairs regularly fell short, the
The same month, Tony Anziano, a Caltrans
attorney who headed all toll bridge construction, told the bridge
oversight group that the repair of the deck panels was close to
Anziano declined an interview request. In its written statement,
Caltrans said Anziano’s reference to “resolution” referred to an “agreed
upon path forward involving the departments, the contractor, and
Yet, hundreds more nonconformance reports were issued to ZPMC for faulty box-girder welds or related problems.
Those reports and others said that one of the serious problems cited
in ZPMC’s first audit – welding or testing welds in the rain or in wet
conditions – continued on numerous occasions over years of production.
Wet welds often mean contamination of the steel with hydrogen, a chief
cause for cracks.
In several cases, bridge sections had been stored in the rain and
filled with water. ABF said in a response to a nonconformance report on
the matter, that the resulting, inaccessible corrosion inside the parts
“would be insignificant and un-measurable” – a conclusion Caltrans
accepted without comment.
The oversight committee began to discuss financial sweeteners to
induce ZPMC to recover time lost to fixing bad welds, according to the
group’s minutes. It also emphasized quality as “the main goal” – a rare
caveat amid constant demands to move faster.
2008: Risky business
“Evening mtg with Anziano in China. Tony says ZPMC is on verge of
stopping work on the job,” Morrow wrote in his diary in July 2008.
“(Caltrans) needs to direct work to move forward even if it adds risk
and cost.” In its written response to Sacramento Bee questions, Caltrans
wrote that while it could not define “risk” without a close review of
the context of such statements, the risk of an earthquake to public
safety “has always been the driving factor” for the project.
“Nearly all staff below Pete (Siegenthaler) and Tony (Anziano)
agree that SERIOUS problems exist in the fabrications and with ABF,”
Morrow wrote. “Moral(e) is very low as concerns are not followed up on
and poor workmanship is allowed to continue.”
As delays dragged on, Caltrans approved paying the contractors an additional $6.5 million to boost efficiency and quality, and to catalog the work.
The money didn’t fix ongoing problems with “tack welds,” a key
concern for Merrill. Those preliminary welds for the box girders, about
3 inches long, hold in place steel parts in preparation for final welds.
Tack welds were cracking routinely and the cracks often remained
underneath the final welds, according to Merrill’s testimony at the
Senate hearing. John Fisher, an expert on metal fractures and emeritus
professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., confirmed this
observation for Caltrans soon after Merrill raised the issue in August
2008, according to Fisher’s report on the issue.
Merrill feared that the cracks could cause structural problems.
But Siegenthaler directed Merrill “not to look in areas that I knew
there were cracks,” Merrill said at the hearing.
In an email with photos to Siegenthaler, provided to The Bee by a
state Senate investigator, Merrill alerted Siegenthaler to the
problem. Siegenthaler did not change his orders, Merrill said at the
Maroney told The Bee that he never saw Merrill’s memos or emails.
“It was a Team China thing, but I knew there was fighting. And that’s
actually why I went there,” to look into the matter with Fisher’s help.
In a rebuttal to Merrill’s Senate testimony, an official from
Alta Vista Solutions, Siegenthaler’s current employer, called Merrill’s
requests to fix cracks “a contentious issue” that “would further
deteriorate the relationship between Caltrans and the
fabricator/contractor, and that would not address the problem at its
root. Mr. Siegenthaler instructed (Merrill) to follow the agreed upon
inspection protocols,” rather than directing him not to find cracks.
DeSaulnier, at the Senate hearing, asked Coe, the Caltrans engineer, if Merrill had been too rigorous.
“There’s nothing rigorous about meeting the contract specifications,” Coe said. “ ... (Merrill’s) recommendation to stop the process like that, because it was leaving problems in the work, is what we normally do.”
Coe, drawing on decades of Caltrans experience, said at the
hearing that he still warned Merrill to expect trouble: “Talking back to
the ... project manager puts you in harm’s way.”
In an earlier interview with the Senate investigator, however,
Coe said Anziano called the shots. “Anyone who went against Tony didn’t
stick around,” Coe said, according to the Senate report. “This is the
first time in my career the engineering wasn’t allowed to be done
A few months after Merrill confronted Siegenthaler, Caltrans
agreed to a major change in the contract to allow cracks in some tack
welds to remain unrepaired.
In a recent interview, Keith Devonport, a consultant for one of
the project’s subcontractors who said he served as fabrication manager
in China, confirmed that Siegenthaler ordered Merrill to ignore certain
cracks. He said he agreed with Merrill’s concerns “100 percent.”
Devonport had managed similar box-girder fabrication for large
companies since 1995. He worked in China on the Bay Bridge from 2006
until 2010. He quit in disappointment about project management, he
said, after Caltrans moved him from China to California. “I didn’t feel
as though I could perform my role as fabrication manager 5,000 miles
away from where it was taking place,” he said.
In its written statement, Caltrans said that Devonport was not a
fabrication manager, and was moved to California to assist on other
aspects of the job.
Shortly after Merrill voiced concerns about welds, nearly nine
months before the contract of his firm, MACTEC Engineering and
Consulting Inc., expired, Caltrans put the contract out to bid. Caltrans
ordered an independent audit of a competitor, Caltrop Corp. and its
subcontractor, Alta Vista. The audit, obtained by The Bee from the
Senate investigator, stated that they lacked skill or experience
required for key welding supervision jobs. Yet before the audit was
completed, Caltrans certified the firms as qualified and awarded them
“(T)he decision to advertise a new contract for inspection services ... was
made by the Department’s CFO,” Caltrans said in its written statement.
“Specific issues surrounding quality assurance contractors are the
subject of an ongoing CHP investigation ... and questions about that should be directed to CHP.”
Inside a Bay Bridge roadway girder. Quality control problems at the
Chinese builder of the new span’s roadway led Caltrans to allow cracks
where steel stiffeners (top), which resemble corrugated cardboard, were
welded beneath the roadway deck.
2009: Shanghai showdown
In late 2008, Caltrans began payments of more than $13 million
more to build a database to track weld quality. (Caltrans refused to
provide it to The Bee, saying that the data still had to be
crossed-checked for accuracy.)
With the schedule for delivery of the deck sections slipping, the
oversight group called for “drastic measures,” meeting minutes noted
early in 2009. It approved $45 million for acceleration incentives.
But as the work sped up, quality problems worsened. On July 1,
Pursell, one of the top engineering managers, told ABF that Caltrans had
been finding more cracks on welds that ZPMC inspectors had approved.
“(Y)our data does not indicate the seriousness associated with
the presence of transverse cracks,” the kind that can grow into the
surrounding metal of the box girders and cause fractures, Pursell wrote
to ABF executive Michael Flowers. Such cracks, he added, “are of great
Worried that flaws were being missed, Coe ordered new tests using
ultrahigh-frequency sound waves at a setting not previously tried. He
found worrisome cracks in approved welds. On Sept. 15, 2009, Coe drafted
a formal state letter requesting more such tests.
Anziano ordered Coe to rescind the letter, according to an email
obtained by The Bee. Coe, who had managed box-girder projects at
Caltrans for about 30 years, said at the Senate hearing that he had
never been told before to overlook serious quality concerns.
The first shipment of girders were on a boat ready to go to
Oakland. “It’s important for you guys to know that these segments that
are coming over to Oakland may be full of defects,” Coe testified he
told Kenneth Terpstra, a deputy to Anziano.
Coe said that in a conference call he told Anziano he intended to
take the box girders off the boat and recheck them to protect public
safety. Anziano became angry and ordered him not to do so, adding, “Do I
make myself clear?” Coe said. “I was just flabbergasted.”
Soon after, Anziano came to China and removed Coe from the Bay
Bridge job. At the hearing, Anziano said he reassigned Coe to reduce
“We’ve seen instances, time and time again, where we have, in
effect, gone to war with the contractor,” Anziano said at the Senate
hearing. “It will cost you time. It will cost you money. ... And it will
not resolve the problems.” He denied compromising quality or
overstepping his authority by making engineering decisions.
But Caltrans eventually took Coe’s advice, to a degree, ordering
some of the new tests he proposed and some repairs, according to records
recently made public.
As concerns about workmanship mounted, the ZPMC began to resist
even standard quality assurance. According to a nonconformance report at
the time, Caltrans employees came to the jobsite to test a box girder
for possible cracks on heavily corroded welds. A ZPMC supervisor
obstructed efforts to take photos, wiped away key markings from the test
area and shouted “no UT,” a reference to ultrasonic testing. The
inspectors withdrew. Caltrans later agreed to conduct its quality checks
on a schedule agreed to by ZPMC.
On Dec. 30, the first finished box girders were shipped to Oakland.
“Steel decks have cracks in ’em,” said Steve Heminger, executive
director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and current
chairman of the oversight group, at the January Senate hearing. “The
issue is not whether there’s a crack there, it’s whether it matters.”
Caltrans evaluations, reviewed by experts, found that the cracks didn’t
matter, he said.
Picturesque but problematic. A single cable hangs off the tower and
attaches only to the bridge itself. Typical suspension bridge cables are
anchored into bedrock. The self-anchored design holds up 28 steel box
girders, which in some cases include cracked welds, contrary to the
Over the next year, the oversight committee approved funds to train ZPMC welders, plus more than $191 million
in speed-up incentives and cost adjustments, according to contract
change orders. With so much money flowing, the roadway box girders moved
in a steady stream from Shanghai to Oakland. By early 2010, 12 of 28
had been lifted into place over the bay. By the end of that year, 19 had
Siegenthaler, who oversaw the work in Shanghai, retired from
state service in September 2011, and a month later, just before the
final bridge girders were set in place over the bay, he joined Alta
Vista Solutions as executive vice president.
Siegenthaler had been a member of the Caltrans committee that in
2008 awarded the quality supervision contract to Caltrop and Alta Vista.
His first-place ranking put them over the top to win the contract,
according to the committee’s records, obtained by The Bee under the
state Public Records Act. A couple of months after Siegenthaler left
Caltrans, Alta Vista won the $21 million prime contract to oversee quality issues for the new span’s materials.
Records provided by the state Fair Political Practices Commission
said that Siegenthaler contacted the agency in December 2011 to ask
whether he might risk violating conflict of interest laws if he worked
on Caltrans projects. Based on the facts Siegenthaler presented, the
agency saw no problem. The documents contain no mention of his role in
awarding the Alta Vista-Caltrop contract.
As the project wound down, ZPMC reaped tangible rewards, sharing with ABF more than $250 million in cost overruns and incentive payments.
Counting the money spent on travel and living costs for Caltrans
and its contractors, the suspension span consumed much more than the
$250 million in ZPMC’s assumed efficiencies that made the Chinese steel so cost-effective.
“We have traded money for time,” said Heminger. “We never once traded quality for time.”
Overseas contract leads to high travel tab
By selecting a bridge-building neophyte in Shanghai to fabricate
the iconic suspension span of the new Bay Bridge, Caltrans took on
logistical complexity and escalating travel bills.
Caltrans employees and U.S. contractors who supervised the job lived
fulltime in Shanghai, and top officials flew there often. Tony Anziano,
toll bridge program manager, alone spent more than $300,000 on travel.
Part of that cost was for Anziano’s room at the five-star JW
Marriott Shanghai Tomorrow Square for up to $470 per night, according to
his expense reports. One of the city’s most luxurious hotels, it
features a 60th floor library – the world’s highest – marble bathrooms
and a lavish Mandara Spa.
Anziano, the top Caltrans official on the
bridge project, almost always stayed at Tomorrow Square, in the stylish
Puxi shopping district, across the teeming metropolis from the bridge
Kenneth Terpstra, a deputy to Anziano, often stayed at the same
hotel, up to 27 days at a stretch, for as much as $567 per night.
Caltrans described the accommodations as "reasonable and
appropriate" in a written statement. "The hotel provided a government
rate that was comparable to rates at other western hotels," and followed
bargaining agreements, based in part on providing adequate "safety and
support for employees far from home."
Caltrans employees on long-term assignments in Shanghai stayed at
the Marriott Executive Apartments – at the top end of the local
long-stay hotel market, according to the leasing agency bizstay.com. For
more than three years, Caltrans paid about $50,000 annually per person
to rent more than a dozen well-appointed rooms with access to a
state-of-the-art fitness center and pool, according to lease agreements.
Anziano made at least 64 such visits over six years between 2006
and 2012, jetting from San Francisco to Shanghai as often as four times a
month, often staying one or two days, according to travel records
obtained under the California Public Records Act. For a two-day trip in
2011 he paid $6,266 in plane fare, although a coach ticket at the time
typically cost less than $1,500.
"Real time on-site observations and conversation were (critical)
to effective management of the program and project," Caltrans said about
Anziano usually billed his travel for the Bay Bridge to the Bay
Area Toll Authority, funded mostly by bridge tolls. In the process, he
accumulated about 400,000 frequent flyer miles for his personal use, as
permitted by state law.