Firm says it warned of flaw in Bay Bridge project

Cianbro claims state told pavement would not bond

February 18, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The company that began replacing the deck on the westbound Bay Bridge in 2002 said yesterday that it repeatedly warned state officials that a bonding agent required under the project's specifications could fail - a prediction that came true when concrete on the span developed extensive cracks last year.

Speaking publicly for the first time, officials of the Cianbro construction firm said they were unable to persuade the Maryland Transportation Authority to change the specifications until after the project was well under way.

The cracks in the deck forced the agency to replace much of the pavement. The resulting lane closings led to miles-long backups last fall and added millions of dollars to the cost of the project.

At a news conference yesterday, senior project manager Gary Gorman said that Cianbro and a subcontractor told the state's engineers "many, many times" in 2002 and 2003 that a substance known as a "matrix restorer" - which was supposed to make a new layer of cement bond to the bridge's subsurface - would actually break the bond.

Officials of the Maine-based firm rejected any suggestion that the company was responsible for the cracked pavement, asserting that it did the work just as the state insisted. All the work criticized in an independent engineering report released last week was done "under the direction and approval" of the Transportation Authority, Cianbro officials said.

If their description of events is true, the firm would have a strong defense against any liability claim by the state, a lawyer who specializes in Maryland procurement law said yesterday.

"Where the contractor performs the work in accordance with the plans and specifications, but the results are unsatisfactory, this indicates a design defect," said Scott Livingston, a lawyer in private practice who is a former assistant attorney general for the transportation agency.

When the problems on the bridge were first reported last September, the authority estimated the cost of redoing much of the cement work at $7 million. Since then the state has acknowledged - without giving a specific figure - that the cost will rise. The bridge redecking project was originally expected to cost $60 million.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that he expects to release a final estimate of the additional costs within a week.

In a news conference at Cianbro's Mid-Atlantic office in Curtis Bay, regional vice president Mike Hart said he was not disputing the engineering team's findings. However, he said the company was breaking its self-imposed silence on the project to "clarify" some issues.

Hart also disclosed that Cianbro learned Dec. 23 that it was the sole bidder for the second phase of the bridge rehabilitation project - as it had been on the first. But the Cianbro executive said he has been told the authority would reject the bid for the second phase.

Flanagan confirmed that the state will not award the contract but added that Cianbro's performance was not the reason. He said the company was "fully qualified to do the work out there."

Flanagan, who chairs the Transportation Authority, said he decided to change the scope of the project and seek input from multiple contractors on the recommendation of the independent engineering team. The fact the state received only one bid is "one of the major reasons we want to have a fresh approach," he said.

Last week, Flanagan announced that the authority would delay the second phase until the fall of 2006, at the earliest, to review its plans.

Flanagan noted that Cianbro has a financial interest in claiming it is not responsible for the failed concrete work. He said any determination of liability would be made by the Maryland Attorney General's Office.

Cianbro confirmed that one of its subcontractors, Pioneer Contracting Co. of Odenton, also raised an alarm. In December, Pioneer released a document showing that in January 2002, it told the Transportation Authority that the matrix restorer would actually "act as a bond breaker."

Flanagan would comment only indirectly yesterday on the warnings.

"Cianbro and Pioneer have raised very serious issues that are quite similar to the determination that the independent investigating team has reached," he said.

Flanagan, who took office in early 2003, said authority engineers rejected the recommendation to stop using the matrix restorer because it had been applied successfully on two bridge projects on Interstate 95.

Hart said the Bay Bridge project posed far more challenges. "It was like comparing apples and oranges," he said.

Hart did not directly blame the state or deny liability for the faulty cement work, insisting he hasn't even discussed the subject with company lawyers.

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