Design Revealed for New FIU Pedestrian Bridge

TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2022

At the beginning of the month, the Florida Department of Transportation unveiled new design plans for the Florida International University pedestrian bridge, more than four years after the initial bridge collapsed during construction and resulted in six deaths.

The new bridge will span the same location, across Southwest 8th Street at Southwest 109th Avenue, with a goal of creating a safer route for students and staff to cross from the main campus to student housing. According to reports, unlike the old concrete bridge, the new pedestrian bridge will be made with steel girders.

FDOT hosted its first public meeting on the proposal on May 5. The Miami Herald reports that the first question came from Sweetwater Commissioner Marcos Villanueva, who asked if traffic would be stopped when inspectors perform structural tests of the bridge — work that preceded the 2018 collapse.

“Yes,” said Daniel Raymat, an engineer with the firm designing the new bridge on a state contract, BCC Engineering. “There’s not going to be any overhead work when there is traffic.”

Additionally, where the first bridge used an “accelerated,” pre-built construction method to shorten building times and minimize traffic disruptions, the new bridge will be built at the site and take disruptions into account.

“We’re not contemplating accelerated construction. It will be conventional construction done in phases,” said Daniel Iglesias, Director of Transportation Development at FDOT. “Road closures and detours will be needed.”

FIU managed the first bridge project, but FDOT said it will be directly managing the new project. Sweetwater and FIU are reportedly listed as local partners. Iglesias said that designs are more than halfway done for the new bridge, with plans to invite bids for the construction contract in early 2024.

Construction is reportedly expected to begin early 2024 and last about two years. The budget for the bridge is about $15 million.

Dave Beck, a retired structural engineer in Bennington, New Hampshire, who has studied the FIU bridge collapse, told the Miami Herald that Florida’s new plans for a bridge sound far more generic and traditional than the first one. “Making a pedestrian bridge doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said. “Using steel instead of concrete, that’s the way to go.”

In March, FIU hosted a memorial service to honor the six victims, including the unveiling of a bronze statue of student Alexa Duran. The statue was surrounded by five pillars, representing the other five victims. According to the release, FDOT also unveiled a rendering of a memorial plaque.

“The plaque, once fabricated, will temporarily sit near SW 8th Street and SW 109 Avenue until it is permanently installed on the new pedestrian bridge that will be constructed to connect FIU and the City of Sweetwater,” Iglesias said at the ceremony.

FIU Bridge Collapse

FIU is home to the Accelerated Bridge Construction University Transportation Center, a multi-university center promoting ABC techniques. At the time of its construction, the $14.2 million 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.

The span’s design was for a cable-supported bridge, with the work being done in collaboration by Miami-based MCM Construction and Tallahassee-based FIGG Bridge Design.

According to CNN, shortly after the span was installed, W. Denney 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.

By June 2019, 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.

Investigation Findings

In October 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board 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.

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

“Errors in bridge design, inadequate peer review and poor engineering judgment led to the collapse of this bridge,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “The failure of all concerned parties, to recognize and take action on the threat to public safety presented by the significant observed bridge structure distress prior to the collapse, led to the tragic loss of life in this preventable accident.”

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, FDOT, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and FIGG.

In November, the NTSB issued a full report containing the probable cause, findings and safety recommendations made from its investigation.

By August 2020, FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc., along with FIGG engineer William “Denney” Pate, announced that they were suing the Federal Highway Administration for the agency’s suspension of its eligibility to participate in federally funding projects, pending debarment proceedings.

The news came after it was announced in July that FHWA suspended FIGG from participating in federally funded projects and, at the time, proposed a 10-year debarment period for the firm. According to USDOT correspondence, the decision directly derived from FIGG’s role in the deadly March 2018 FIU bridge collapse and the role that the National Transportation Safety Board determined that FIGG played.

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

The suspension went into effect July 14.

Rebuilding the FIU Bridge

Officials from FDOT announced in May 2020 that they would be launching a bid process for the design and construction of a new “signature” bridge over Southwest 8th Street in Miami-Dade County along the Florida International University campus.

According to The Miami Herald at the time, FDOT intended to restart the project using enhanced safety measures and safety recommendations made by the NTSB. For the new project, the Department also planned to select a project team and directly oversee the construction process.

Although FDOT is also slated to choose the project’s new design, the Department intended to consult with FIU on the aesthetics. The collaboration came as an FIU spokesperson reported that the new bridge must still hew to the original vision and that designing a “signature bridge” is a condition of the federal TIGER grants.

Overall, the design-build project is slated to cost $14.6 million. However, the infrastructure is planned to be paid for using $9.5 million received as a contractor settlement from the failed bridge, roughly $3.3 million in federal TIGER grants and other unspecified grants from the state and other agencies.

In March last year, it was announced that plans to rebuild the Florida International University pedestrian bridge were moving forward.

In a meeting, the university’s board of trustees approved the transfer of $9.1 million to FDOT, which will oversee the design and construction of the bridge, The Miami Herald reported. The money transfer includes the $8.5 million settlement with the contractors on the failed bridge.

The design process was slated to begin soon after and would take roughly two years to complete. Construction of the bridge is also expected to take two years, suggesting a project completion date by 2025.

Latest Settlement

In October last year, the trial for the last remaining lawsuit for the bridge collapse had been scheduled for Jan. 10, 2022. The lawsuit, against the Louis Berger Group, the global engineering firm that had been hired to independently review the bridge design, is being sought by the widow of one of the victims killed in the collapse. 

“Punitive damages will punish the defendant for wrongful conduct: recklessly taking a job he didn’t have the credentials for, and to deter others from doing the same thing,” said attorney Paul Layne, of Coral Gables’ Silva & Silva, which represents the family.

The Miami Herald reports that prosecutors said they have not determined any criminal charges. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police homicide bureau are continuing their investigation as to whether failure to close the road would lead to a criminal negligence charge.

“There are still ongoing matters which may impact our FIU bridge collapse investigation, including pending civil case litigation and potential administrative reviews. As this remains an active investigation, we are not yet at liberty to release any information regarding the direction of this investigation or any final conclusions,” said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office.

However, in December, the Louis Berger Group settled with the family of Brandon Brownfield just weeks before the case was set to go to trial. The details of the settlement were confidential.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Bridges; Construction; Department of Transportation (DOT); Design; Fatalities; Lawsuits; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Upcoming projects

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