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Judge Rejects Lifting FIGG Suspension

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

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A federal judge has denied FIGG Bridge Engineers’ and engineer William “Denney” Pate’s request to lift the imposed suspension from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to reports, in the Aug. 17 opinion U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found that neither FIGG nor Pate demonstrated that they would have a likelihood of success against the FHWA based on the merits of their claims.

Kollar-Kotelly also said they did not prove that they would suffer irreparable harm as a result of the suspension or make the case that lifting the suspension was in the public interest.

Other highlights of Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion include:

  • The potential economic losses they predicted are speculative;
  • The effect of the suspension on FIGG's current contracts is unclear;
  • The firm has already suffered reputational harm independent of the suspension after the Florida International University bridge collapse; and
  • The National Transportation Safety Board's determination that the FIU bridge collapse's probable cause was related to load and capacity calculation errors made by FIGG.

Background

Last month the FHWA suspended FIGG from participating in federally funded projects and, at the time, proposed a 10-year debarment period for the firm. According to U.S. Department of Transportation correspondence, the decision directly derives from FIGG’s role in the deadly March 2018 Florida International University bridge collapse and the role that the National Transportation Safety Board determined that FIGG played.

National Transportation Safety Board, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A federal judge has denied FIGG Bridge Engineers’ and engineer William “Denney” Pate’s request to lift the imposed suspension from the Federal Highway Administration.

In a letter from USDOT Acting Inspector General Howard R. "Skip" Elliott to lawmakers, which cited the suspension decision, Elliott said that “FHWA is taking these actions to protect the public interest based on the firm’s conduct related to the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse. The firm may contest FHWA’s actions as part of the suspension and debarment process.”

FIGG had 30 days to contest, which it did on Aug. 11, by filing a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the FHWA.

FIGG and Pate argue that the suspension could cause them irreversible “catastrophic and imminent harm” to a degree that could not be recovered while they wait for the debarment process to complete its course.

In the suit, FIGG also takes direct aim at the FHWA, for not doing its own investigation of the FIU collapse, for waiting this long to pursue action, ignoring evidence presented by FIGG’s independent experts, for targeting FIGG out of the more than 40 companies who worked on the FIU project, and for the 10-year debarment itself, which FIGG argues is a “draconian” departure from recent federal guidelines.

FIGG and Pate filed their suit against the FHWA earlier this month. The suspension went into effect July 14.

FIU Bridge Collapse Background

FIU is home to the Accelerated Bridge Construction University Transportation Center, a multi-university center promoting ABC techniques. The pedestrian bridge was touted as an example of innovative design and construction meant to limit road closures and inconvenience stemming from the otherwise lengthy bridge construction process.

According to CNN, shortly after the span was installed, Pate, employed with FIGG, which was part of the design-construction team, noticed there was an issue—a crack had formed along the north side of the bridge, and repairs were needed. Other engineers, though, had deemed the structural integrity of the span safe just hours before the incident.

Earlier on the day of the collapse, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the bridge had undergone a “stress test." Florida Senator Marco Rubio noted on Twitter that the cables that suspended the bridge had loosened, and the engineering firm ordered for them to be tightened. The cables were being tightened at the time of the collapse.

In September, a preliminary report from the NTSB indicated that cracks found in the bridge a few days before it collapsed were much more extensive than originally thought.

In April 2019, after MCM filed for bankruptcy, lawyers presented documents alleging that engineers dismissed cracks found in the bridge prior to the disaster. The following month, the construction company responsible for building the FIU bridge reached an agreement with insurers to pay up to $42 million to victims of the incident, as well as their families.

In June, in the 115-page report, federal work-safety investigators determined that the street that ran under the bridge should have been shut down because of cracks in the structure. Parties involved failed to recognize the danger due to design errors. Later that same month, the project’s lead technical designer testified during a pretrial hearing regarding evidence. This was the first time he had commented since the tragedy. In August, other companies being sued in light of the incident decided to settle.

In early October, the NTSB released 6,300 pages of documentation detailing its examination of contractors on the project. One engineer reportedly claimed that the highway underneath the bridge should have been closed while the project was ongoing.

Finally, the NTSB announced that it found that the probable cause of the fatal pedestrian bridge collapse was related to load and capacity calculation errors made by FIGG. The NTSB also alleged that the consulting engineer Louis Berger’s inadequate peer review also contributed to the bridge’s collapse.

Although FIGG and Berger have been identified as the primary contributors to the FIU bridge collapse, the NTSB noted during its public board meeting that MCM, Bolton Perez and Associates Consulting Engineers, FIU and the Florida Department of Transportation's failure to cease bridge work and close the SW 8th Street to protect public safety also contributed to the severity of the collapse’s outcome.

Throughout the investigation, the NTSB found that:

  • Concrete and steel materials used during construction of the bridge were not a factor in its collapse and the hydraulic jack used to post-tension the steel rods in member 11 was operating as expected at the time of the collapse;
  • The restressing of member 11 was a manipulation of loads to address structural cracking of unknown origin, constituting a change to the FIGG design, and the measure should have been independently reviewed by a professional engineer before being implemented;
  • FIGG’s bridge design was nonredundant because it provided only a singular load path;
  • FIGG’s construction plans inconsistently identified when intentionally roughened surfaces were needed to fulfill assumptions of the bridge design;
  • Even if the cold joint surface of nodal region 11/12 had been roughened to a 0.25-inch amplitude, node 11/12 would not have had sufficient capacity to counteract the demand load for interface shear—and the bridge would still have been under-designed and could have failed;
  • The rate of premature concrete distress was clear evidence the structure was progressing toward failure and should have alerted FIGG and MCM to the origin of the distress; and
  • The Florida Department of Transportation should have verified Louis Berger’s qualifications as an independent peer review firm as part of FDOT’s oversight of local agency program projects.

Of these findings and others totaling 30 discoveries made about the incident, the NTSB issued various safety recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration, the Florida Department of Transportation, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and FIGG.

However, although dismissed by the federal investigative agency, FIGG hired forensic structural engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to dispute the NTSB’s ruling. Construction Dive reported at the time that WJE’s investigation identified the failure to build a construction joint at member 11 and roughen the concrete beneath bridge member 11 according to FDOT standard construction specifications as the probable cause of the bridge collapse.

The joint assertions were dismissed when NTSB pointed out that FIGG’s construction plans didn’t consistently identify when roughened surfaces were necessary to fulfill the bridge’s design.

Other Projects

Since then, FIGG has been removed from several high-profile projects.

At the beginning of the year, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) requested that joint venture Flatiron-Dragados LLC replace the $800 million U.S. 181 Harbor Bridge replacement project’s designer, FIGG.

According to reports, FIGG had overseen designs for the Harbor Bridge’s main spans—which are included in the cable-supported section of the bridge that will cross the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.

“FIGG was shocked by Texas Department of Transportation’s press release concerning FIGG’s design role on the cable-stayed main span and relating this to the construction accident on a pedestrian bridge in Miami," FIGG said in a statement at the time.

Although FIGG is reportedly certified by TxDOT in bridge design, complex bridge inspection and bridge construction management, among others, the department insisted that NSTB’s opinions “were significant enough” for the decision to replace FIGG despite FIGG’s counter evidence.

And, earlier this week, Houston’s Harris County Commissioners unanimously voted to fire FIGG from the nearly $1B Houston Ship Channel Bridge Replacement Project.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority announced in January that it would be temporarily halting construction on the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge replacement project in order to review a section on the main pylons of the cable-stayed portion design.

That pause was extended indefinitely in March and FIGG had still been the bridge designer at the time.

The most recent contract loss was referenced in FIGG’s TRO argument about the imminent harm of the debarment, noting that the contract was almost half of FIGG’s revenue.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Bridges; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Good Technical Practice; Lawsuits; NA; North America; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)

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