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E – 1775 “Conflict of Interests” Corrupts Engineering and Endangers Public Safety- The Case of the New SAS Bay Bridge

Intended Audience: All Engineers
Credits: 2 PDH Units

3 STUDENTS ENROLLED

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake resulted in the drop of a 50-feet long segment of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, an 18,000 feet long steel bridge. The earthquake caused the collapse of the concrete double-deck viaduct killing 42 people. California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) undertook a multi-billion dollar retrofit and replacement program, which included the replacement of the Eastern Spans of the Bay Bridge with a single-tower self-anchored suspension bridge. The bridge took 15 years of construction, more than twice the original plan. At the cost of $6.5 billion, a 2,500% cost overrun from the initial estimate of $250 million, the SAS Bay Bridge ended up having more than 16 structural severe problems including fracture of the anchor rods of the main tower, which occurred even before the bridge opened to traffic. This course traces the root cause of the problems of SAS Bay Bridge mainly to the “conflict of interest” in the engineer members of various advisory and peer review committees of Caltrans. The engineers, charged with independently overseeing and peer-reviewing the seismic safety aspects of the new bridge, were themselves receiving contracts to do the design and testing work on the same bridge that they were peer-reviewing.

Professor Astaneh will present the results of his extensive failure analysis of both the 1936 East Spans of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which sustained relatively minor damage but was demolished and replaced with the new Self-Anchored Suspension (SAS) Bay Bridge, which opened to traffic in 2013.

He will show, through analysis of the seismic performance of both 1936 bridge and the 2013 replacement, how “conflict of interest” in the members of the top advisory boards and the peer review committees was at the root of design and construction problems of the new bridge. Some critical elements of the new SAS Bay Bridge, such as the 3-inch diameter high-strength anchor rods of the tower and west-support, fractured even before the bridge was opened to traffic.

References and Recommended Further Readings:

  1. Code of Ethics of National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) (PDF)
  2. NSPE Ethics Guide(PDF)
  3. ASCE Code of Ethics(PDF)
  4. Ethics, Technology, and Engineering, a book by Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers, Wily-Blackwell, 2011. (Amazon page)
  5. Concepts and Cases-Engineering Ethics, a book by Charles E. Harris et al., published by Cengage2019. (Amazon page)
  6. Concerns on Seismic Safety of the New East Bay Bridge Design, by A. Astaneh-Asl, Submitted to MTC.
  7. Astaneh Letter to Bay Area Toll Bridge Oversight Committee on SAS Bay Bridge Problems, PDF
  8. Concrete Credence: More Bay Bridge Woes May Validate Concerns of Span’s #1 Critic by Glen Martin, CALIFORNIA Magazine.
  9. A Bridge Too Weak?, Ron Russel, San Francisco Weekly
  10. Bridge Over Troubled Bolts: Cal Experts Question Whether New Bridge is Safe, CALIFORNIA Magazine
  11. Cracked welds raise doubts about Bay Bridge safety, by Charles Piller, Sacramento Bee Newspaper.
  12. Do hidden cracks imperil Bay Bridge? By Charles Piller, Sacramento Bee Newspaper.
  13. A Bridge Suspended in Controversy WIRED Online Magazine
  14. Panel that reviewed Bay Bridge foundations has ties to Caltrans, Sacramento Bee Newspaper.
  15. Bay Bridge troubles began with design – SFGate.
  16. California lawmakers prescribe more transparency and independence for megaprojectsEast Bay Times

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of the course, the student should understand:

  • What does Canon 3 of Code of Ethics: “ Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner “ means?.
  • What does Canon 4 of Code of Ethics: “Engineers shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees” means?.
  • Why “Avoiding Conflict of Interest” is one of the fundamental principles of the Code of Ethics for Engineers.
  • What are the “legal” and “ethical” responsibilities of engineers to “Avoiding Conflict of Interest.”
  • How not “Avoiding Conflict of Interest” was at the root of many problems and failures of the new SAS Bay Bridge.
  • How not “Avoiding Conflict of Interest can lead not only to corruption and fraud but to safety problems.
  • How the 1936 East Spans Structure of the Bay Bridge performed during the 1989 earthquake and how it would perform during future earthquakes after a relatively limited retrofit.
  • How might the 2013 New SAS Bay Bridge perform during future earthquakes?.
  • What “conflict of interest existed in the members of the Caltrans Seismic Advisory Board and Caltrans Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel concerning planning, design, testing, and construction of the SAS Bay Bridge.
  • What lessons can we learn from the case of SAS Bay Bridge to “Avoid Conflict of Interest.”

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