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Skanska Takes FL Liability to Court

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

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Contractor and design-build team Skanska USA Civil Southeast turned to the U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Florida, last month in an attempt to significantly reduce or eliminate its liability for damages experienced at the Pensacola Bay Bridge construction project, caused by its own barges during Hurricane Sally.

The separate filings seek to have the barges recognized as vessels protected under maritime law.

Replacement Project History

The Pensacola Bridge replacement project kicked off back in 2016 as the original structure—constructed in 1960—was reaching the end of its lifespan. The project consists of a new U.S. 98 bridge across the bay between Pensacola and Pensacola Beach comprised of two separate structures: one for eastbound traffic, the other for westbound, with three 12-foot travel lanes, a 10-foot-wide path for foot and bicycle traffic, as well as 10 feet inside and outside shoulders. Pedestrians will be able to use shaded observation areas to take in views of the bay.

The first new bridge reached completion in 2019. At that time, two lanes of eastbound and two lanes of westbound traffic were slated to be moved onto the new bridge. Once that is complete, crews plan to demolish the old bridge and build the second structure by late 2021.

The $430 million replacement project is being funded by FDOT and is reported to be the state’s largest-ever transportation project.

Bridge vs. Barge

In anticipation that Hurricane Sally would make landfall some 200 miles west of Pensacola, contractor and design-build team Skanska USA hadn’t planned to move its construction equipment but told Engineering News-Record that it had made all appropriate pre-storm preparations. However, when Hurricane Sally unexpectedly changed her course in the final hours of approaching land, it was too late to take additional action.

As a result, the Category 2 hurricane landed just 30 miles west of the Pensacola Bay Bridge (also known as the Three Mile Bridge) replacement project site, causing the dislodge of several barges and other construction equipment.

One of the worst impacts, Pensacola News Journal wrote at the time, was a crane that passed under the Three Mile Bridge, smashing through the surface of the road from beneath, destroying the span. While the structure was closed immediately following the barge impact on Tuesday morning, it was reported that the bridge suffered a second impact the following day. Upon preliminary damage assessments, FDOT has determined that at least five of the 105 spans are irreparable and will have to be reconstructed.

The Garcon Point Bridge was also affected by a dislodged barge and was also closed.

A few days later, however, inspectors discovered that damages to the Pensacola Bay Bridge were worse than previously expected. During a preliminary inspection, crews found that:

While FDOT’s statewide team of bridge experts are nearing conclusions of further inspection and assessments of the structure, they released additional information on the experienced damages. At the time, the Department reported that a survey of the piers and topside inspections were completed along with most of the underwater footings. Further inspection findings included the inspection of 202 underwater footings, while top side inspection teams assessed 105 spans, 202 piers and 525 beams; FDOT identified five spans requiring full replacement, in additional to two that would require partial replacement; and that a number of beams will require replacement, however, that number was still being determined.

At the beginning of October, FDOT announced that demolition efforts on the damaged areas of the Pensacola Bay Bridge had begun, with focus on areas that need cleared for dive access in order to examine the final 22 footings below the waterline.

At the time, three of Skanska’s barges remain on or under the structure, which will have to be removed with great caution. While the contractor has prioritized the barge removal and is reported to be working closely with FDOT to ensure the least amount of additional damage possible to the bridge in its efforts, they are also utilizing additional resources to expedite demolition.

In wake of the efforts taken to repair the structure, Skanska had already fabricated 25 beams, various piers and other replacement beams and piers at its offsite yard needed to begin repair efforts. The contractor has also reached out to other facilities to assist in production.

By the end of the month, FDOT issued a letter of intent to Skanska USA seeking damages and lost toll-related revenue because of the current toll suspension on the Garcon Point Bridge.

Due to the closure of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has temporarily suspended the $5 bridge toll on the privately-owned Garcon Point Bridge. While an inspection is still underway, initial assessments report that repairs could take up to six months.

Prior to the closure of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, Garcon Point averaged roughly 6,500 vehicles per day, although after the bridge was closed in September, traffic had increased to more than 31,000 vehicles per day.

While owners of the Garcon Point Bridge have yet to pursue the recovery of lost tolls during this time, Jason Peters, FDOT Director of Transportation Operations, said in its letter of intent to Skanska that the department would pursue, should the request be made.

However, according to Sen. Doug Broxson, lost toll revenue caused by emergency closures are usually paid out by the Florida Legislature. In terms of tolls revenue, Broxson added that the loss was a monthly difference of between $700,000 and $4 million.

At the time, the governor’s order suspending the Garcon Point Bridge was slated to expire on Nov. 13. This toll suspension has since been extended to Jan. 12.

Providing a repair update at the beginning of December, Florida Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, told the Pensacola News Journal that Skanska still had barges littered around the area, alongside crews accounting for safety, equipment, and fuel, which in turn is driving up enormous daily costs.

While Skanska did not attend the town hall, the company has since been reported to have hired two subcontractors to initiate repairs on the bridge. In their efforts, the teams have been sending divers to evaluate pilings and repair concrete, in addition to replacing entire spans of the bridge.

Regarding the cost of the additional repairs, Skanska or its insurance companies are slated to pay for the repairs directly. Although many sections of the structure are being repaired ahead of schedule, the company is motivated to complete the project as soon as possible as its reported to be “building at a loss.

While the unexpected increase in cost is daunting, Andrade reported that there was no chance of Skanska walking off the project, as the company wishes to be awarded more Florida transportation contracts in the future.

Money issues don’t end there for Skanska, however, as Sam Geisler, an attorney with the Pensacola law firm Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis and Overholt told reporters that the firm is currently representing 35 businesses that have been negatively affected by the bridge closure and are preparing to open a case against Skanska to immediate those losses as well.

Another town hall regarding the Pensacola Bay Bridge repair project is scheduled to be held in January.

Skanska Seeks Liability, Work Continues

In five separate filings—each representing a different barge—Skanska has requested that the courts declare the company not liable “for any loss, injuries or damages" related to barge damage, including economic losses suffered by businesses from the closure of the new span of the bridge.

While a Skanska spokesperson told reporters that the company doesn’t comment on active or pending litigation, should the courts refuse the company’s request, they’ve submitted an alternate request, asking that the liability be limited to the dollar amount of its ownership in each vessel.

Skanska has valued its barges to each cost between $125,000 and $550,000, totaling $1.43 million, and asks that they be divided pro rata between all those submitting valid claims within a certain time period to be determined by the court. A copy of a security bond equal to the value of each barge was included with each filing.

According to a recent report on the reconstruction of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, Skanska is continuing to remove debris and drive piles, which is slated to continue over the next several weeks.

Multiple teams are still working around the clock to ensure pile-driving efforts remain on schedule, while other crews work to move the pile-driving template ahead and install beams. Efforts for pier removal are also being conducted at night to keep ahead of the daytime pile-driving crews.

The current numbers on the demolition and repair activities to date include:

  • Seven fully damaged spans removed;
  • Eight partially damaged spans removed;
  • 16 damaged pedestrian path beams removed;
  • 61 damaged I-beams removed, with eight replaced;
  • Four damaged trophy pieces removed; and
  • 11 replacement piles driven.

Over the course of the work, FDOT is continuing to monitor Skanska’s investigation with state and local authorities to determine if the line connecting the barge to the sea floor was severed, as another barge was reported to break loose at the end of December.

The Pensacola Bay Bridge has a targeted reopening date of March 2021. Once repairs are complete, all four lanes will be open with no load restrictions.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Bridges; Construction; Infrastructure; Laws and litigation; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair

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