Looking back: Collapsed bridge almost decade of work

Michelle Marchante/News Director

The “Worlds Ahead” pedestrian bridge crossing SW 8th St. and 109th Ave. collapsed five days after it was “swung” into place, leaving tragedy and questions in the wake of a project that had been in the works for almost a decade.

The project had been planned since 2010 but wasn’t proposed until 2011 due to limited funding. It wasn’t until 2014 that the project fully took off and in 2016 the finalized design was created. Ground construction began on March 1, 2017.

The bridge was part of a $19,391,196 multi-agency project called University City Alliance, which would combine university life with the surrounding communities. The partners for this project, as stated in a 2013 Student Media article were FIU, the City of Sweetwater, Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, International Business Machines Corporation and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Just one of the project’s three phases, the bridge had a cost of approximately $12 million. Besides the bridge, the project also included plazas, walkways, the Informed Travel Program and Applications, and Community Transit. The ITPA as Student Media previously reported in February 2016, costed $2,373,707 to create smart parking and smart transit technology. The Community Transit, which would be the last part of the bridge, and would be integrated with the ITPA costs $241,335 and would be for authorized transit vehicles to run between FIU’s main campus and FIU’s engineering center.

The federal government provided $11,397,120 for the project. The U.S. Department of Transportation also initially provided $11.4 million through the TIGER Grant for the project, but also gave additional funding through Florida’s Department of Transportation to expand the plaza and cover construction costs to move the bridge 11 feet north more into Sweetwater to create an express bus lane, something that Kenneth Jessell, the University’s senior vice president for Finance and Administration and chief financial officer, described as “crucial” during an interview with Student Media back in early March.

Combined, both departments gave $13,671,122 for funding, with FIU and Sweetwater contributing $3,729,013 and $1,991,06 respectively.

FIU hired Figg Bridge Group as the bridge designer, MCM as the contractor, Bolton Perez and Associates as the Construction Engineering & Inspection, and the firm Louis Berger to conduct an independent secondary design review on the bridge as required by the agreement between FIU and FDOT because of the structure’s “unique characteristics.” The bridge was built using Self-Propelled Modular Transporters, a relatively-new technology used in construction. The firm hired to do this secondary review was required to be FDOT pre-qualified but Louis Berger, according to FDOT’s preliminary fact sheet, was not FDOT pre-qualified for this service. 

Additionally, this was a local agency project not a FDOT project and had nothing to do with the actual construction of the bridge, the fact sheet states.

“FDOT’s role is to administer funding and perform a preliminary review for general compliance with the agreement between FIU and the state,” the fact sheet reads. “FIU’s design build team is responsible for the proper and safe completion of this project and for compliance with all applicable laws and engineering and construction standards. Additionally, any testing done to the structure following its installation was the responsibility of the FIU design build team.”

However,  a new report by The Miami Herald shows FDOT served as a consultant for many details, was a member of the committee who approved MCM and FIGG and were also involved in selecting the consulting engineering Bolton Perez and Associates. They also had input in the design and location of the bridge and FDOT staff also attended weekly, bi-weekly and monthly meetings about the bridge. The Herald also reports that FIU produced a document Saturday which shows that contrary to what FDOT’s preliminary fact sheet states, Louis Berger was qualified for the job when it was hired.

Student Media has contacted FDOT for a statement on this discrepancy and are awaiting response. Student Media has also contacted FIU Media Relations to request the document that was presented Saturday.

FDOT also released a transcript and audio file of a voicemail left to the department on a landline by W. Denny Pate, FIGG’s lead engineer in charge of the pedestrian bridge project, alerting them to cracks in the structure.

“Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend,” Pate said.

Um, so, uh, we’ve taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that’s gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can. Thank you. Bye.”

The voicemail wasn’t heard by any employees until Friday, the day after the bridge collapsed, according to FDOT.

The Design Build Team of MCM, FIGG, and representatives of FIU and FDOT also met at the MCM trailer located on the construction site a few hours before the bridge collapsed to discuss the structure cracks, according to a statement FIU released Saturday, March 17, but after a technical presentation conducted by a FIGG engineer, it was concluded that the cracks “did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge.”

But Alfredo Reyna, the Assistant LAP Coordinator and FDOT consultant who attended the meeting was never notified of any life-safety issues, need for additional road closures or other assistance, FDOT’s website statement reads.

Robert Accetta, who is leading the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, said during Friday night’s press conference that it’s too early to tell if the cracks played a part in the bridge’s collapse. NTSB has also confirmed that that workers were tightening two wires, which were holding the bridge in place, at the time of collapse, but it’s unclear as to why the streets were not closed during the wire-tightening.

FDOT says they had issued a blanket permit to allow up to two traffic lane closures at anytime after the bridge was installed but that a request to close the entire road was never requested.

NTSB, along with state and local police are currently investigating why the bridge collapsed and both FDOT and FIU say they are cooperating.

 

Student Media will continue to update this story as it develops.

 

Feature Image by Nicholas Poblete/PantherNOW

About the Author

Michelle Marchante
Michelle Marchante is the 2018-2019 Editor-in-Chief of PantherNOW. Majoring in broadcast journalism, she lives and breathes web, print, radio and TV news 24/7. You can connect with her on Twitter @TweetMichelleM

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