Bridge project being slowed

Report critical of work to reconstruct bay span

Standards were `bent too far'

Planned completion delayed until 2007

February 11, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that he is slowing down the Bay Bridge reconstruction project to take a "fresh approach," in light of a highly critical report on problems with work on the westbound span.

In a news conference at the bridge's police station, Flanagan said the planned completion of the project in the spring of next year would be delayed until 2007. Work will continue through this spring as contractors complete the first phase of the project, which gave drivers headaches when botched concrete work forced lane closings last fall.

The short-term good news for motorists who use the bridge is that the hiatus Flanagan announced yesterday will keep the span free of major roadwork this fall and spring of next year, when lane closings had been planned.

At the recommendation of a panel of engineering experts brought in after the concrete problem was discovered, Flanagan said the Maryland Transportation Authority will work more closely with contractors to avoid the kinds of mistakes that have been made with the project.

Flanagan also vowed to involve residents of the communities most affected in planning ways to minimize traffic disruptions and improve communications. "I want them to know we take the disruption in their personal life very seriously," he said.

That disruption became acute in October when Flanagan ordered prolonged closings of two of the three westbound lanes to complete emergency repairs to one of the lanes before cold weather set in. He acted after learning in September that the authority had found that concrete poured in the early stages of the project would have to be scraped away and replaced.

The authority completed the work in time for Thanksgiving but at the cost of backups that in some cases delayed drivers for an hour or more.

In the report released yesterday, an "overview team" led by veteran transportation engineer Thomas B. Deen delivered a scathing assessment of the planning and execution of the first phase of the project. Flanagan said the panel worked independently and provided "an unvarnished look" at how the project was handled.

The panel did not say who was liable -- leaving that to the attorney general's office -- but the report suggested that the authority and its contractors might share the blame for the project's troubles.

Deen said that from its planning stage in the 1990s, the reconstruction, an extremely challenging and demanding project, was treated as a "routine" job.

The authority released a report by the experts that found that numerous corners were cut in the first phase of the project.

"In the case of the Bay Bridge, it appears there were a particularly large number of exceptions and non-standard practices in a situation where meticulous adherence to best practice was a necessity for good results," the report said.

Among other mistakes the experts pointed to were frequent deviations from guidelines requiring minimum temperatures of 40 to 45 degrees for applying a bonding chemical or pouring concrete. Some work was done when the temperature was as low as 29, Deen said.

"There was great pressure to try to get the job done and on time," he said. "Standards with respect to temperatures were probably bent too far."

Low temperatures were one of six engineering factors the experts identified as contributing to the failure of the overlay of concrete to bond to the subsurface of some sections of the bridge deck.

Others included:

Thinner decks than those on similar bridges, a legacy of the original design. The experts said that thinness imposes "stringent demands" that were not met in the resurfacing project.

Poor preparation of the undersurface for pouring the concrete overlay.

The use of the wrong chemicals to ensure a tight bond between the two levels of the deck.

The choice of a concrete that was susceptible to cracking if poured in cold weather.

Inadequate methods for hardening the concrete.

Thomas L. Osborne Sr., chief executive of the authority during the early stages of the rehabilitation, resigned in October after the extent of the bridge's problems became public.

The reconstruction of the westbound span's deck began in 2002. It was supposed to cost about $60 million, but the cost is expected to be at least $7 million higher after the cost of repairing cracked concrete is factored in. The revised plan for the second phase could also drive up costs, but Flanagan said there is no way to estimate the final price now.

The report said that if future repairs are necessary, the authority should replace the deck, rather than resurface, wherever possible. That would be potentially costly but could be expected to increase the life of the repairs.

The panel also admonished the authority that if it does any future resurfacing, it should adhere strictly to temperature guidelines and other requirements for pouring concrete.

The report urged state officials to thoroughly evaluate the qualifications of potential contractors and subcontractors before involving them in Bay Bridge work.

The team said authority officials must make decisions in advance -- with the help of the best experts -- on how to balance the competing demands of construction schedules, weather and traffic.

"They should not be [made] in the midst of the construction project, when deadlines are fast approaching, funds are dwindling and the weather is closing in," the report said.

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