Behold Caltrans, the state transportation agency in California that, despite having some $14 billion or so to spend every year, cannot manage to follow its own rules.
California has been building a new eastern span for the Bay Bridge, a $6.4 billion project scheduled to open in about two months. California would like very much to ensure that the bridge does not fall down, and so instituted a series of rules requiring Caltrans to inspect and verify the quality of key components of the bridge. Prominent among those key components are the rods used to connect the bridge tower to the span — a particularly important collection of parts, because they cannot be replaced.
As it stands, Caltrans cannot find any record of its having visited the plant at which the rods are produced or having performed the quality-control tests that it is required by law to perform. What is known is that the rods — which already are installed and cannot be uninstalled — were improperly subjected to a process called “pickling,” in which they are cleaned with hydrochloric acid. The process, which Caltrans specifically banned for the bridge components in question, makes the rods more vulnerable to cracking. But it was done, and Caltrans failed to perform the mandatory examination to ensure that it wasn’t.
Caltrans also cannot find any documentation that the resident engineer on the project performed the required final review of the work.
In sum: Caltrans has spent billions of dollars on a new bridge span that incorporates parts manufactured in a way that violates Caltrans rules that are as a result more likely to fail, that already have been installed and cannot be removed, as part of a process with missing quality-control documentation and no record of a final sign-off from the engineer in charge — and a September 3 opening date.
Those who believe that government should have a stronger hand in regulating the private sector should consider that government cannot even regulate itself much of the time. Those who argue for stronger regulation do so with the implicit assumption that we will have if not the Platonic ideal of a regulator then at least a good regulator. What we get is Caltrans.