FDOT Privatization: Trouble in Paradise?

FDOT Privatization: Trouble in Paradise?

Source: http://southeast.construction.com, May 2005
By: Scott Judy

Dealing With Problems, Agency Pushes Accountability

One day after a major rainstorm in January 2004, construction crews discovered evidence of cracking on some of the piers of the nearly completed $60 million Memorial Causeway Bridge in Clearwater, Fla.

Further investigation revealed deep cracks penetrating more than halfway through four piers that exposed reinforcing steel. Replacement of the piers will cost $10 million and add a year to construction.

A few months later, the ground underneath a pier along the elevated portion of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway gave way, plunging the support about 12 ft. into the ground. Workers were on top of a supported deck, but luckily, no one was seriously injured.

While a sinkhole was first thought to be the culprit, it was actually insufficient engineering. Repairs and other necessary retrofits could cost $100 million.

PCL Civil Constructors of Tampa was the contractor on both projects, and, according to FDOT, is “believed to be of no blame” on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway project. However, added FDOT, PCL’s role in the problems with the Memorial Causeway Bridge project is still “unclear.” Even so, errors and faulty assumptions by the private engineering firms were cited both times.

In Florida’s world of increasingly privatized design – a world in which contractors often are more intimately involved – engineers are perhaps finding out the downside of what has been a lucrative trend for them. In other words, design errors of such magnitude won’t result simply in change orders and increased costs to the owner. The engineers – or contractors – are increasingly on the hook.

In case it wasn’t clear before, William Nickas, state structures design engineer for FDOT, told Southeast Construction: “The Department of Transportation doesn’t imply nor represent that you are shifting the engineering responsibilities to us just because we accept an engineer’s work. It’s the sole responsibility of the engineering (firm).”

Take the case of URS Corp., the engineer of record on the Crosstown Expressway project. With the blame pointed at URS, the expressway authority has been pushing for an extensive retrofitting of constructed piers – even those that haven’t failed – and for the engineering company to pay the full bill for repairs.

Speaking about a proposed solution to the project that his firm does not agree with, Tom Logan, URS vice president, recently told Engineering News-Record, “We don’t agree with the decision, but we respect it. Our clients get what they want. And if that’s what they want to do, we’ll help them implement it.” Mediation has been scheduled for June.

Logan’s comments are indicative of the potential for future work in Florida and the importance of staying in FDOT’s good graces. Currently, FDOT is awarding between $500 million and $700 million in consulting contracts annually.

Ananth Prasad, director of FDOT’s office of construction, said as a result of such problems, the department will be closely reviewing the capabilities of the engineering firms it does business with.

“We need to look more carefully at (firms) we’re qualifying to do various work,” he said.

During the recent annual FDOT/Florida Transportation Builders Association conference, held in March in Orlando, department officials repeatedly reminded attendees, especially engineers, of their responsibilities. In turn, engineers occasionally grumbled about the shift in accountability.

The Shift

At this year’s conference, the emphasis on accountability was clear. In the opening session, FDOT Assistant Secretary Kevin Thibault thanked industry attendees for their efforts over the past year – such as helping with the recovery from the four hurricanes – but quickly returned to the accountability theme.

“We’re asking you to be accountable for the efforts and responsibilities we’ve given to you,” he said. But he added that doesn’t mean FDOT isn’t willing to hear some feedback.

“We truly believe in the spirit of trying to learn the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “We want you to help us make sure we’re identifying those areas where we’ve done some good things, and identify where we need to do some improvement.”

Jim Lynch, vice president of LBFH of Palm City and chair of the Florida Institute of Consulting Engineers’ Subcommittee on Construction, took Thibault up on his offer when he addressed the opening crowd.

“The department is a very good client, and we’re all lucky to work for them,” he said. “However, that doesn’t mean that we agree with everything the department says. We are talking about some serious issues that are critical to our industry.”

He added that one of the serious issues is responsibility, and when it comes to contractor-based quality control, for example, some firms don’t always provide accurate information – and are not held accountable.

Under the current system, the engineering firm is held responsible for the accuracy of the contractor-gathered data. “Our position is if it’s a contract requirement for the contractor, then they need to do it,” Lynch said. “They need to be responsible for the accuracy and timeliness of it.

“Everybody needs to be responsible for their contract obligations. It’s not cost effective to the state of Florida to pay a CEI, a contractor or even a third-party consultant if they’re not going to be responsible for that duty. We’d like to see the department hold all of the various people responsible for their contract obligations.”

Essentially, engineering firms appear to be feeling that an inappropriate level of risk is being shifted to them.

Doug Cox, also representing FICE and the moderator of the conference’s “Design-Build Update,” suggested the risk-shifting conversation is still ongoing, but said: “We want to shift the risk back to DOT. Of course, DOT is shifting the risk back to us.”

The Projects

As it turned out, a factor common to both projects was cutting-edge design – or, more precisely, design work that was pushed to the edge.

On the Memorial Causeway Bridge, PCL initiated a design change after winning a design-bid-build contract. Its changes were made under a value-engineer-change procedure, a process similar to design-build, and included the use of a different type of pier/superstructure connection than was originally proposed.

During construction, the deck became unbalanced and created excessive compression on one side of the pier columns and tension on the other. This caused the cracking.

FDOT’s Nickas said if more attention had been paid to the project’s engineering, the problems would not have occurred.

“The fundamental design is not (in question),” he added. “If it was erected with due care and had some additional engineering to bring attention to these hot spots, then (the engineer) would have designed past it with external falsework or changes to his balance calculations so he wouldn’t have impacted those columns.”

On the elevated Lee Roy Selmon project, single piers – referred to as nonredundant piers – support the new highway that is being erected in the median of an existing expressway. URS is being blamed for overlooking engineering standards for these supports, essentially not providing a sufficient safety margin for area soil conditions.

After construction was halted due to the event, consulting engineer Ardaman & Associates of Orlando was brought in to review engineering and make recommendations for completing the project.

Ardaman’s recommendations included retrofitting most of the already constructed piers. URS has recommended further testing to determine exactly which piers should be retrofitted. FDOT has sided with Ardaman’s conclusions.

(Interestingly, FDOT admitted that its officials warned the expressway authority and its consultant engineers four times prior to constructi
on that the piers were overloaded – but went ahead and made a $100 million loan that enabled the project to begin without requiring design changes.)

Striving to learn – and educate – from these mishaps, FDOT is re-emphasizing the tried-and-true over cutting-edge innovation.

“We want to focus on traditional solutions,” Nickas told Southeast Construction. “Innovative doesn’t mean you’re running the concrete stresses up higher or breaking the codes. Innovative should mean taking our normal engineering solutions and how you package it and how you approach the project.

“The exotic stretch of interwebs and longer spans and instability during construction is just not attractive. You’ve got (issues of) workers’ safety, stability during erection – and ultimately you’re going to have the performance issue.”

Jerry Harder, president of PCL Civil Constructors, the contractor on both of the Memorial Causeway and Crosstown Expressway jobs, agreed that a return to basics would be welcome.

“They (engineers) need to follow sound engineering practices,” he said. “You just can’t stray from that.”

Changes

FDOT’s Prasad said the department will be implementing new standards to ensure errors of this magnitude don’t recur, such as changing how it qualifies consultants and revising the requirements for consultants that perform complex bridge work, geotechnical work and inspections on complex projects. The agency hopes to have these new rules in place by fall.

“We are trying to establish more controls so that the firms that get the work are going to do the work,” he said.

In the ultimate privatized process, design-build, FDOT will be mandating third-party peer review of designs, instituting new requirements and specs for shafts and otherwise shoring up its controls.

“We’re trying to strengthen our requirements, have (procedures such as) independent peer reviews, load calculations, service limit checks, so we can assure ourselves that what we’re getting is what we want,” Prasad said. “We’re not trying to stifle innovation per se, but we’re trying to make sure that the (design) passes through all of these time-established checks, so at the end it’s truly established that it has the factor of safety for long-term performance.”

Safety factors will be increased, too, so that engineers will need to go beyond simply meeting design minimums.

“There are minimums, and then there are judgments,” Prasad said. “Engineering includes a lot of judgment. You can hit all of the minimums, but then when you’re actually building something, you can’t afford any slip-ups. So we’re establishing minimums that can take into factor construction tolerances.

After all, Prasad continued, “Construction is not a perfect science. You’re going to have some imperfections. But we need to make sure that the design allows for some of those.”

Again, for Prasad and the rest of DOT, it all comes down to that buzzword, accountability.

“You have responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Contractors aren’t perfect. Employees of the department aren’t perfect. What we hope is folks are learning from their mistakes, trying to improve themselves. If they’re not, then we need to ask the fundamental question: Why are we doing business with them?”

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