Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond accepted responsibility for the mistakes leading to continued cracking in the pontoons being built in Aberdeen, acknowledging that faulty designs done by state Department of Transportation engineers were the likely culprit.
It could cost the state millions of dollars to fix, and some employees may lose their jobs over the mistake, she added.
Hammond, who was not re-appointed as director of the state Department of Transportation by Gov. Jay Inslee and leaves office next month, said that state officials rushed to finish the designs for the pontoons in an effort to find a contractor quickly and get the pontoons finished to replace the 520 floating bridge by late 2014, a timeline established by then-governor Chris Gregoire.
“We were all concerned with the time elements with the delivery of the bridge to get the bridge open by late 2014,” Hammond said at a press conference in Seattle on Tuesday. “… Risks were taken. Folks expected us to take risks in order to achieve the impossible. And when we take those risks we don’t expect to have a flaw in something that normally we’re very good at.”
Hammond didn’t say if the timeline could be delayed, although her staff says that’s a possibility now. And she didn’t go into detail on how much it will all cost, although her staff said that the state has a $200 million contingency fund that could be tapped to pay for cost overruns and fixes.
“I have every reason to believe, given what we know today, that the contingency fund we have is adequate,” Hammond said.
The $4.1 billion floating bridge project is $1.4 billion short. The House Democrats’ proposed 2013 transportation ballot measure assumes tolls on nearby Interstate 90 will cover most or all that shortfall.
Hammond said that the state was at fault here and said general contractor Kiewit-General, in charge of building the pontoons, had nothing to do with the designs.
Last summer, as the first cycle of pontoons began floating out into the Harbor, cracks were found. Although the majority of cracks have been fixed, more cracks were found in the next cycle of pontoons under way now in Aberdeen.
Hammond said she’s confident all of the cracks can be repaired, the problem can be solved and new fixes can be put in place before the third cycle of pontoons are built.
Hundreds of smaller cracks, blamed by a state audit on concrete-curing errors by Kiewit-General, have been relatively simple to fix by filling with epoxy or spreading waterproof sealant over wide surfaces.
There has never been any doubt that the new pontoons will be strong enough to withstand traffic, lake waves or even light-rail trains in the distant future, said John Reilly, the expert review panel chair. The challenge is maintenance over a 75-year design life.
A panel of independent engineers and experts convened by Hammond reviewed the problems to try to nail down just how the cracks were being formed. They discovered by simply doing computer models early on, the majority of cracks could have been predicted before construction had ever begun. “We the panel don’t know why they didn’t do it,” Reilly said. “It’s such an obvious thing.”
A computer-generated model that mimics the geometry of the structure, its parts and its fitnesses and strengths was available. The model would have also worked to figure out what would happen during post tensioning — which is when the walls are tested for the integrity, and what caused the majority of the cracks.
The model also could have been used to determine thermal effects, shrinkage and, to a limited extent, the stresses of the anchorage zones on the end walls, and the end walls, themselves.
No modeling was done.
A reporter asked Hammond, “Could heads roll? Could people lose their jobs over this?”
“I think it’s possible, but we’re going to do the due process and make sure that everybody has their day to respond to accusations that are made,” she replied.
Hammond said that she recommends the state Department of Transportation never provide a “plan-build design” option, where the state engineers the designs and a contractor just builds them.
“While the overall pontoon construction strength is very good, there is a flaw,” Hammond said. “There was a mistake made and that is not something you’d expect when you take this risk. … We got a good bid on the project because the contractor relieved themselves of the risk of designing the pontoons. Monday morning quarterbacking, you never go back and assume to take a risk unless you have confidence in the processes and procedures the agency has. And so, where there is a failure, we need to learn from that, have accountability from that and that is what we’re proceeding to do next.”
Hammond said that the agency can ensure “that the product they end up with will be a good product.”
Hammond said that “corrective actions” are being taken to eliminate confusion and to ensure that modeling is done in the future and big steps aren’t missed. “When we make mistakes, and when we have employees who don’t follow procedures and processes, we are going to stand up to it and we have,” Hammond said. “We have been very transparent about our problems here and we are going to be accountable to our taxpayers and learn from that, make sure we don’t find ourselves in this situation again and that is our pledge to the taxpayers.”
The Seattle Times contributed to this report.