Multimillion-dollar mistakes on a new, floating bridge near Seattle have cost the state’s lead engineer his job and fueled new legislation aimed at holding transportation officials responsible for project overruns.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has reportedly fired one engineer and demoted another after an internal review found that the agency's own design mistakes were to blame for cracked concrete on the SR 520 floating bridge project—a problem that may cost up to $100 million to fix.
Part of a multibillion-dollar project, the SR 520 bridge replacement will provide a seamless transition from the floating bridge to fixed bridges off the shore and on land, connecting Seattle and Medina.
The SR 520 floating bridge project has been riddled with problems, including concrete cracking and peeling around rebar. A WSDOT probe blamed the agency's own engineering failures.
The project has been problematic since a $586 million design-build contract was awarded in January 2011 to Kiewit-General-Mason Joint Venture. Problems have included cracks, leaks and spalling on giant concrete pontoons and too-thin concrete pours around rebar.
After an internal report showed WSDOT engineers—not outside contractors—were to blame for the engineering failures, Gov. Jay Inslee promised to follow through on the disciplinary process.
On Friday (April 12), The Seattle Times confirmed in a phone interview that Jugesh Kapur—the state's top bridge engineer, who heads the Bridge and Structures Office—had been let go. A second employee, who was unidentified, was reportedly demoted.
The disciplinary letters were issued April 5 by Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth, spokesman Lars Erickson said.
"Since this is a personnel matter, all I can confirm is that 2 disciplinary actions occurred, one demotion and one termination of employment. I cannot disclose names or positions," Erickson said in an email on Tuesday, April 16.
An employee who answered the phone at the Bridge and Structures Office on Monday stated that Kapur "no longer works for the State of Washington."
"I'm grossly disappointed that the protocols of the Department of Transportation that should have been followed were not followed," Inslee said about the lack of testing at the design stage, Q13 Fox News reported.
"There will be letters that will be going out shortly to some of the Department of Transportation employees," said Inslee. "Appropriate discipline will be decided after their due-process rights are respected."
In March, at least 13 WSDOT workers were given disciplinary letters stemming from errors on the project, ABC affiliate KOMO News reported.
Internal Review Findings
The internal review found that in the summer of 2009, as the request for proposal was being developed, the Bridge and Structures Office (BSO) "did indicate strongly, several times to SR 520 staff ... that they felt the specifications and plans for the pontoons should be much more developed and prescriptive than what was normally called for in Design-Build."
WSDOT has reportedly fired the state's lead engineer and demoted another employee since determining the agency, not the contractor, was to blame for project failures.
In August 2009, the BSO delivered its specification requirements to be incorporated into the RFP. The specifications were found to be too rigid to meet Federal Highway Administration Design-Build requirements, and the SR 520 staff and BSO staff were directed to "urgently and quickly revise the specifications so that they would meet FHWA requirements for a Design-Build contract," the internal review found.
Other findings from the internal review included:
An incomplete internal alignment process "led to problems with the pontoon design, definition of design responsibility, RFP suitability, and development and construction implementation of the pontoon design";
Cracking caused by thermal effects "might have been better prevented or minimized if proper thermal controls, as specified in the contract, had been implemented";
Some QA/QC processes were "not understood or agreed upon by BSO, were inadequately implemented and/or documented, or were not carried out properly by the BSO"; and
Changes to the contract were allowed without appropriate approval or contract change documentation.
The report documents dozens of other findings as well as recommendations for WSDOT executives and key managers.
After the review, then-secretary Paula Hammond stated, "I am directing WSDOT's chief of staff to prepare the appropriate disciplinary actions, and make the necessary changes to agency protocols and practices."
Lawmakers Want Accountability
Lawmakers in the state are now calling for more transparency and accountability to analyze errors made by WSDOT.
On March 7, several state representatives introduced House Bill 1986, "An Act Relating to the Reporting of Highway Construction Project Errors."
"We need a process that really forces the tough questions to be asked," State Rep. Steve O'Ban told the House Transportation Committee when he introduced the bill, KPLU reported.
"I think the taxpayer demands that, expects that and particularly at a time when we are thinking about going before the taxpayers and asking them to pay more in gas taxes than they already have, after a very difficult economic downtown," O'Ban said.
Error Assessment and Review
The bill would require the DOT to submit a report to the legislature detailing engineering errors on highway construction projects that result in project cost increases of more than $500,000.
The report would require an assessment and review of how the error happened, who was responsible, and what disciplinary action was taken. If the error resulted in a cost increase of more than $1 million, the report would also have to include why the responsible employee(s) was/were not terminated and recommend action to avoid smiliar errors in the future.
The bill would also allow the legislature to take additional action if necessary.
Transportation staff provided a list of engineering mistakes from the last decade that would fall under the proposed legislation, KPLU reported. A total of 14 projects, not including the SR 520 pontoons, added up to nearly $30 million in cost increases.
State Democrats also recently unveiled a $10 billion package, centered around a 10-cent gas tax hike, to help with transportation projects.
State lawmakers want new legislation to hold Washington State DOT responsible for problems that result in $500,000 or more in project cost increases.
New Secretary Wants Review
WSDOT's new secretary, Lynn Peterson, announced a comprehensive program assessment in March for three of the department's large-scale construction projects: the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program, the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement, and the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing.
The assessment, lead by Ron Paananen, CH2M Hill program manager and former WSDOT administrator, will recommend any improvements to decision making and dispute resolution to provide cost-effective project delivery. The review, which is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, will be made public, and Peterson will receive weekly updates on the progress.
Timeline of Bridge Problems
In May 2012, crews found cracking and spalling after completing post-tensioning on a longitudinal pontoon. The problems were repaired by adding reinforcing steel to fix the spalling, replacing concrete, and injecting epoxy to fix the cracks.
After completing the repairs, the first six pontoons were floated out of the casting basin on July 30, 2012. However, an Aug. 22, 2012, inspection found ballast water leaking between two cells in one pontoon and moisture on the inside of an end wall in another.
In October 2012, crews started construction on 10 58-foot-tall concrete columns to put on top of one of the two cross pontoons. The new roadway deck will be installed on top of the bridge piers before sloping down onto the columns.
WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson has announced a comprehensive program assessment for the SR 520 Bridge program and other major projects. Gov. Jay Inslee said he was disappointed by the problems and promised to follow through on the disciplinary process.
KGM inspectors then discovered that one of the columns had too little buffer between the concrete and reinforcing steel, causing project managers to remove and replace the column.
Shifting Rebar, Cracking Panels
When the tube was removed from one column, some of the concrete peeled off with it, and workers found the rebar cage had shifted during the pour, leaving less than the normal 1.5-inch concrete thickness around the rebar.
In November 2012, crews had completed construction of 345 pre-cast concrete wall panels. KGM rejected nine of them; three exceeded contractual limits for cracking, and six were rejected due to a duct alignment issue.
Also in the fall of 2012, crews used heavy machinery to drive massive, interlocking steel sheets into the lake bed, creating a cofferdam to section off a 170-foot-long by 50-foot-wide by 40-foot-deep area in Lake Washington before pumping out approximately 2.5 million gallons of water.
In the winter, divers examined four large pontoons on the lake and found cracks on the undersides that had been concealed when the pontoons were sitting in the casting basin. Similar cracks on the top of the pontoons have grown four to six inches in length since being towed to Seattle in August 2012.
Now, the plan is to add post tensioning from side to side, squeezing the cracks shut, and then injecting them with epoxy as well as possibly applying carbon-fiber patches.
About the Bridge
The bridge sees 115,000 vehicles per day and has only two lanes in each direction. After nearly 50 years in service, it is nearing the end of its original service life. The bridge's pontoons have become vulnerable to windstorms, and its support columns have become vulnerable to earthquakes.
The new pontoons are designed for a 75-year service life to withstand windstorms up to 89 mph and a 1,000-year earthquake event.
The project is the first construction phase of the SR 520—I-5 to Median: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project, for which the Washington State Legislature has set a program budget of $4.65 billion.
According to WSDOT, the latest jobs report counted 832 jobs directly connected to the pontoon and floating bridge project sites.