Democrat Mark DeSaulnier, 62, a former California state senator, is the new U.S. Representative for California’s 11th district. Those seeking a sense of what the congressman is about might consider his experience with the new $6.5 billion eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
This bridge came in $5 billion over budget, a full 10 years late, and riddled with safety issues such as broken rods and faulty welds. In 2013, dozens of the long metal rods on the project snapped. When apprised of these problems, California governor Jerry Brown, a former presidential candidate, famously said, “I mean, look, shit happens.” DeSaulnier, then chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, decided to hold hearings on the matter in January 2014.
Witnesses testified that Caltrans, the massive state transportation agency, compromised public safety by ignoring problems with welds, bolts and rods. Caltrans also outsourced work to China, where workers produced cracked welds. Caltrans bridge engineer Douglas Coe noted that every one of the 750 panels had to be repaired.
The most serious charge, according to chairman DeSaulnier, a graduate of Holy Cross, was “a deliberate and willful attempt to obfuscate what is happening to the public.” Indeed, Caltrans geologist Michael Moore testified that safety problems were kept secret, ignored and covered up.
Caltrans program manager Tony Anziano, a lawyer, denied telling anyone to avoid disclosure. Chairman DeSaulnier listened carefully to Anziano and his boss, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. “I don’t believe you,” DeSaulnier said. “And I don’t believe that the public has the greatest confidence in what you’ve said.”
Whistleblower Michael Moore called for a “criminal investigation,” but none took place. Instead, Caltrans bosses called for an administrative inquiry by the California Highway Patrol. The CHP found “no illegality or retaliation against engineers who complained about construction defects.”
DeSaulnier sent a report on the bridge to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, an Obama loyalist who wants to be a U.S. Senator, but still no word of any criminal investigation. In November, DeSaulnier gained election to Congress, defeating Republican Tue Phan-Quang by a margin of 31 percentage points. The bridge safety issues, however, did not go away.
The problems first emerged through a series of investigative reports by Charles Piller of the Sacramento Bee. Abolhassan Astaneh-Asi, a professor of structural engineering at UC Berkeley, told Piller he believes the structure is unsafe and declines to use the bridge. And the professor surely knows more about bridges than Caltrans program manager Tony Anziano, who conveniently retired in February.
DeSaulnier told Piller he wished Anziano well, “but it’s frustrating that there’s never been anyone in the management of the bridge who has been held accountable.” The new congressman has that right, but taxpayers and toll payers should not be surprised.
It was DeSaulnier, after all, who failed to hold anybody accountable, despite detailed, credible testimony from experts and whistleblowers alike. In those hearings, DeSaulnier also tipped his hand. The billions in cost overruns, the 10-year delay, and lingering safety issues, he lamented, had eroded public confidence and made Californians “adverse to taxes.”
These taxes, DeSaulnier said, were needed for other “infrastructure” projects he did not name but claimed would promote economic growth. He opposed California’s current “bullet train” project but still supports federal funding for high-speed rail.
So with new California Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, it’s not about public safety and accountability after all. It’s all about taxes and spending. The new congressman from California is going to feel right at home in Washington.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow with the Independent Institute and author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and the new crime book, Exceptional Depravity.