Unbridged differences: Behind the Bay Bridge safety clash

By Glen Martin

The new Bay Bridge has officially opened, but the bitter dispute between UC Berkeley engineers and transportation officials over the safety of the span is far from resolved. Several professors have expressed misgivings, citing everything from basic design to snapping anchor bolts, faulty welds and corroding girder tendons—the most outspoken critic being civil and environmental engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, who has repeatedly declared the new span far less stable than the old one. 

Astaneh’s criticisms have generated testy responses from transportation officials, who insist the new bridge is safe and feel the project has endured unwarranted calumny. We didn’t realize how testy, however, until we were copied on correspondence between Astaneh and bridge boosters.

Over the summer, Astaneh received a letter from Bay Area Toll Authority executive director Steve Heminger, California Transportation Commission executive director Andre Boutros, and California Department of Transportation director Malcolm Dougherty. In it, they took the professor to task for “intentionally providing erroneous, misleading and incorrect information on the seismic performance of the new East Span to elected officials, the media and the public. You acknowledge such a statement is a serious accusation, yet you do not offer any evidence…You have gone so far as to call the new East Span a ‘death trap.’  To make such an allegation without any proof is not just baseless but irresponsible…”

The transportation officials further claimed Astaneh had “cast aspersions” on the integrity of the engineers constituting the bridge’s Peer Review Panel, and noted Astaneh refused to meet with project staff “so you can develop an understanding of the project and to share any evidence that will support your claims. You have been relentless in continuously tossing out baseless allegations without proof, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but also does a grave disservice to the public and its understanding of this vital safety project. You are beyond overdue to provide even a shred of evidence to support your accusations.”

The officials sent copies of their complaint to new UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, College of Engineering Dean S. Shankar Sastry, and Civil and Environmental Engineering Department chairman Samar Madanat.

Astaneh told us the letter “tries to force me not to use my freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to discuss my research results with the news media and public…” He also labeled it “very disturbing in a sense that it clearly tried to pressure me by sending the copies of the letter to those UC officials who are in charge of evaluating my performance.

“My area of research focuses on structural safety of buildings, bridges, and other structures subjected to gravity, seismic, blast (car bomb attacks) and impact (airplane and rocket attacks on the structures). All my research activities during more than 4 decades, has been to develop information and technologies on protection of structures against these forces and to save lives of people who occupy these structures. If as a result of my more than four decades of teaching, research and design of structures, and as a result of all my professional activities, the life of one single person was saved or even a single person was prevented from being injured on a structure, all my efforts during those forty some years were worthwhile and I have fulfilled my obligations to myself, to my employers and public, regardless of whether such efforts were welcomed or appreciated by others, including in this case these transportation officials or even the University officials.”

Astaneh replied to transportation officials by referencing his correspondence years earlier with Caltrans, in which he contended that it was unnecessary for him to meet privately with Bay Bridge authorities because they had repeatedly heard his concerns. He also suggested some members of panels reviewing bridge issues had conflicts of interests. And he passed along a July open letter from Thomas Devine, a professor in the department of material science and engineering, in which Devine detailed his less-than-satisfying dealings with transportation officials. In one case, for example, he noted that he met with the toll bridge manager, a lawyer, instead of an engineer, adding, “The technical exchange that I had hoped for did not materialize.”

So where do things stand? Astaneh says he’s received no response from Heminger, Boutros or Dougherty. Nor has he followed through on his promise to provide the three with a more detailed response to their criticisms by the end of August; he now says he has decided instead “to publish papers on my extensive studies of the new and existing Bay Bridge.”

Our repeated emails to Heminger, Boutros and Dougherty went unanswered.

As for how his university bosses reacted to receiving the letter from transportation officials castigating Ashtaneh, we asked Dan Mogulof, Cal’s executive director of public affairs, about the university’s position.

“The professor is exercising his free speech rights as a citizen of this country,” Mogulof said, “and the University does not take a position in disputes of this sort.”

For more information about the ongoing dispute over Bay Bridge safety, click here. 

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