MDOT: Next Zilwaukee Bridge project will have safeguards to protect taxpayers and motorists

Source: The Saginaw News, January 14, 1011
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The Michigan Department of Transportation will require the next contractor that replaces large bearings on the massive Zilwaukee Bridge to demonstrate it can do the work or the company will lose the contract, a MDOT engineer said.

The agency aims to avoid a repeat of the construction mishap nearly three years ago when a contractor inadvertently cut through reinforced steel during bearing replacement work, causing MDOT to close the northbound lanes months longer than scheduled and to divert thousands of motorists who rely on the Interstate 75 bridge over the Saginaw River.

“There will be accountability if there’s anything catastrophic” on a project starting next year, said Robert A. Ranck Jr., Bay Region engineer.

The agency also will hire experts in concrete box segmental bridges to oversee an estimated $36 million to $44 million two-year project on the bridge in 2012.

MDOT made the pledges Friday while three state lawmakers and others climbed inside the concrete deck of the massive bridge along Interstate 75 over the Saginaw River that carries 60,000 vehicles daily.

The mistake turned the project into repair work and cost $3.8 million, or $500,000 more than budgeted for the original work. Crews installed a steel brace on the bridge as a precaution to bolster the strength of the 8,000-foot-long span that carries traffic 125 feet above the river. The bearing replacement project was delayed until 2012 and will be paired with major bridge deck work, Ranck said.

MDOT declared no one at fault for the mishap after it released an $80,000 independent report last December that The Saginaw News requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency attributed the problem to hand-drawn “as built” plans that failed to show changes made in the field during the bridge’s construction in the 1980s. Today, MDOT uses computer-aided design and electronic storage of blueprints to record changes and to keep accurate records, officials said.

After a Saginaw News investigation, state Sen. Roger N. Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, called the agency to task for the mishap and asked it to change procedures, if needed, to avoid similar mistakes on projects statewide.

State Rep. Paul Opsommer, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and who also toured the bridge, said he would meet with MDOT Director Kirk T. Steudle next week “to see what things they put in place so on any future projects it doesn’t happen again.”

Opsommer, R-DeWitt, said documentation of changes to the concrete span more than two decades ago “were poorly done,” although he said he doesn’t question the safety of the bridge.

State Rep. Kenneth B. Horn, R-Frankenmuth, told MDOT authorities after the tour he disagreed with the agency’s conclusion the 30-page independent report, drafted by Spalding DeDecker Associates Inc. of Rochester Hills, which found no one at fault.

He said taxpayers expect someone to be held accountable. “Our constituents are going to expect something,” he told officials.

“Just to simply make a blanket statement that no one was at fault probably was not appropriate,” he said in an interview. “The top brass at MDOT is ultimately responsible for that. Someone is going to have to stand up and take responsibility. There is no other option. … I cannot accept that we spent $80,000 for a report that gives us recommendations for a fix that holds nobody accountable.”

The lawmaker suggested the state find a way to keep taxpayers from holding the bill if a contractor is responsible for a mistake on future projects.

For the next Zilwaukee Bridge project, a company will have to show it can install one bearing properly. If it fails, “we can opt out of the contract if we determine this is not the way we want to go,” Ranck said.

The contractor will have to install 34 flat expansion bearings, each 3 feet in diameter and weighing 1,500 pounds a piece, along with 96 similar-sized bearings in concrete piers. That portion of the work will cost an estimated $17.6 million.

MDOT hasn’t yet determined how it will find steel buried in the concrete, he said. The state has hired T.Y. Lin International, a San Francisco-headquartered bridge design firm with an office in Southfield, to find the “means and methods” to search for a solution for 2012, he said.

The agency might rely on chipping through concrete to get a field verification before work begins, Ranck added. Ground-penetrating radar used two years ago did not work as well as officials hoped, the report concluded.

Bay City Transportation Service Center Manager Gregg Brunner said the state has committed, among other points, to more detailed construction plans on hand before work begins, field verification and will hire another professional firm to review T.Y. Lin International’s plans as an extra precaution.

“Overall, there’ll be a lot more effort,” Brunner said.

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