TxDOT Cites Safety Concerns for Harbor Bridge

THURSDAY, AUGUST 18, 2022


The Texas Department of Transportation recently announced it was working with the developer of the new Harbor Bridge to address design safety concerns after suspending the project last month. According to a review completed by an independent civil engineering group, the bridge’s cable-stayed design is “highly problematic” and, if finished, would “create safety concerns.”

Once completed, the Harbor Bridge project is expected to address structural deficiencies and navigational restrictions of the current bridge in Corpus Christi, as well as improve safety, connectivity and level of service in the area. In total, 6.4 miles of new bridge and a connecting road to replace the current bridge will be constructed at an estimated cost of $1.1 billion.

However, problems found would reportedly affect foundations, load and weight concerns, structure and stability of the bridge.

Project Background

Beginning in 2015, joint venture Flatiron/Dragados LLC was chosen by TxDOT for the design-build contract for the new Harbor Bridge, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The new bridge is slated to carry U.S. Route 181 across the Corpus Christi Ship Channel off Corpus Christi Bay, replacing the current Harbor Bridge, a through arch bridge that was built in 1959. Once completed, the bridge will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in the United States. According to TxDOT at the time, the total cost of the project—including the construction of the new bridge and the demolition of the current one—would be approximately $802.9 million.

In March 2017, construction activities began on the project, and by February 2019, crews had completed concrete placement on the first lift of the south tower.

The following month, Flatiron/Dragados LLC announced that the project would likely not meet its April 2020 completion deadline. However, the first span had been put into place on the north side of the ship channel, marking a significant milestone. Company officials attributed the delay to weather conditions and permitting issues.

In November 2019, TxDOT declared the suspension of design work for the Harbor Bridge. The announcement arrived after the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings related to the FIU bridge collapse in October, revealing that the probable cause was related to load and capacity calculation errors made by the Harbor Bridge project’s designer FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc.

Consequently, at the beginning of 2020, TxDOT requested that Flatiron/Dragados LLC replace FIGG. 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.

Due to the suspension and previous delays, the Harbor project’s original completion date slated for 2021, was pushed back to early 2023, increasing the project’s total to $930 million.

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.

However, in receiving comments on the matter, FIGG disputed the decision, stating, “FIGG engaged Wiss, Janney, Elstner Assoc. Inc. (WJE), the preeminent forensic engineer in the nation, to review the Florida accident. WJE’s detailed research, in-depth analysis, and physical testing shows that faulty construction of the Florida bridge—which FIGG had no hand in—was to blame for the collapse, not its design.”

Latest Project Suspension

On July 15, TxDOT halted construction on the new Harbor Bridge span due to safety concerns. The halt reportedly only impacted construction regarding the new cable-stayed bridge portion of the project.

Originally anticipated to be completed in 2020, the contractor estimated earlier this year that it will not be finished by 2024. However, the latest delay could push that back even further. TxDOT  requested that Flatiron/Dragados, as well as Arup and CFC, resolve the issues before continuing work.

“We work hard to maintain productive relationships with all of our partners to deliver projects efficiently,” said TxDOT Chief Engineer Lance Simmons, “and we cannot compromise on safety. We have been transparent and direct in sharing our concerns with FDLLC as well as our expectations on addressing these safety issues.”

In a statement provided by the joint venture to the Caller-Times, the companies stated they were “confident in the safety and durability of the bridge as designed” and would continue work with TxDOT.

“FDLLC hired some of the most experienced and prestigious designers of signature cable-stayed bridges in the world,” the statement read. “FDLLC will continue to meet its contractual obligations and work in good faith with TxDOT.”

Lynn Allison, a spokeswoman for Flatiron/Dragados, said that construction unrelated to the spans, such as road work and work on the north and south approaches, will continue and not be affected by the halt. The main spans for the new bridge comprise roughly one-eighth of the project, Allison noted.

Allison added it was unclear if the halt would push back the project’s 2024 completion date.

“It's hard to say because it just depends on how the work progresses from here,” said Ricky Dailey, a TxDOT spokesman Dailey. “So it's a little early to give you a neat timeline on the completion date.”

What Now

In a letter recently released to the public, which dated the same day construction was halted, TxDOT wrote to Flatiron/Dragados Project Manager Keith Armstrong in response to the upcoming installation of delta frames and the suspension of work over safety issues.

Earlier this year, the department notes it consulted bridge design and engineering service International Bridge Technologies to independently review the designs. The company concluded that there are “significant design flaws that raise serious concerns about the safety of the New Harbor Bridge.”

While IBT found “numerous technical findings and observations” to be addressed, the department explained that the five areas of primary concern include:

  • Inadequate capacity of the pylon drilled shafts;
  • Deficiencies in footing caps that led IBT to report that the bridge would collapse under certain load conditions;
  • Delta frame design defects, primarily related to the connections between the delta frames and the adjacent precast box units;
  • Significant uplift at the intermediate piers; and
  • Excessive torsion and other stresses related to crane placement during construction.

The letter also adds that Flatiron/Dragados, as well as its Engineer of Record Arup-CFC, have failed to “adequately address the nonconforming design,” continuing to deny any problems with the design “despite ample evidence to the contrary.

“TxDOT absolutely wants to move this project forward with minimal delay, nonetheless, we are committed to ensuring that what we build and what we provide is safe by all standards and expectations,” wrote the department in a statement.

“Currently there are concerns on the part of TXDOT, our consultants and our independent reviewers that the final design of the cable-stayed bridge is highly problematic, and if built to completion, would create safety concerns. To prevent this safety concern from occurring in the first place, TxDOT suspended the developer’s construction on that portion of the project.”

“The word ‘collapse’ is not a good word,” said Rep. Todd Hunter, a Republican who represents parts of Corpus Christi and Port Aransas. “The word ‘collapse’ means we need to really know about the public's safety. And that means transparency up front.”

“Safety is our most important concern,” added Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo in a statement. “I will continue to demand answers, require greater transparency, and ask our state delegation the hard questions. I cannot underscore how important safety is to our residents. TxDOT must come up with solutions.”

Hunter also assured that local cities and counties won’t have to pay for any cost overruns related to the design issues, pushing for a timeline or deadline about the next steps.

TxDOT reports it will continue to provide information on updates. The full letter can be read here.

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Bridges; Contractors; Contracts; Department of Transportation (DOT); Design; Engineers; Government contracts; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Quality Control; Safety

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