- The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) will temporarily hault starting Jan. 11 construction on the main pylons of the cable-stayed segment of the $962 million Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge replacement project. The stoppage will give FIGG Bridge Engineers an opportunity to produce an acceptable redesign related to the curved portion of the pylon legs.
- During what is expected to be a three-week pause, the authority's independent consultant, COWI North America Inc., will review and verify the new design under a March 2019 engineering services agreement. COWI, which identified the potential FIGG flaw, should complete its review by March 2020.
- FIGG is the engineer of record for the project, while the joint venture of Traylor Brothers Inc. and Zachry Construction Corp. is performing the construction. The authority hired HNTB to provide construction management services as well. Construction on the bridge began in 2018 and is expected to wrap up in 2024.
It is not unusual for a very large, engineering-heavy project like the Ship Channel Bridge to have an independent consultant review the engineer of record's design. In fact, FIGG was required by the Florida DOT to retain an independent engineering firm to review its design of the failed Florida International University pedestrian bridge in Miami.
However, both FIGG and its consultant Louis Berger came under fire from the National Transportation Safety Board and OSHA’s Office of Engineering Services for a flawed design and lack of oversight, respectively, after the bridge collapsed in March 2018, killing and injuring several people. FIGG has disputed any assertions that its design caused the collapse.
In November, the Texas DOT stopped construction on the $803 million replacement of the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi, Texas, so that FIGG's design could be reviewed as well. Three weeks ago, the state's DOT provided an update on the review, reporting that it has not found safety issues but is working with contractor Dragados-Flatiron to make sure the project will have adequate oversight moving forward.
So, does this mean that FIGG will have to endure extra scrutiny in the future because of the FIU incident? The answer is probably yes, according to Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.
"Unfortunately, when major errors are made, confidence in the organization that made them erodes, and that motivates reaction, especially when those errors are very much in the public eye," he said. "Reactions can range from canceling contracts to stopping work and re-evaluating designs. In such circumstances, responsible leaders have to act, at a minimum for the optics, but in reality, just to be responsible.”
Even with relatively small projects, FIGG's involvement has raised concerns. Last summer, Connecticut lawmakers sent a letter to the state DOT commissioner raising questions about FIGG's role in the repair of a bridge. The commissioner backed FIGG's participation as part of the project's quality assurance team but did make clear that the engineering firm would not staff the project with anyone that had worked on the FIU project.
"FIGG ... is a highly experienced organization with a long and proud history," Schofer said, "but rebuilding confidence in its work ... will demand a belt-and-suspenders approach. Expect to see a lot of checking — and checking the checkers.
"It’s a sad outcome," he said, "but this is the price one pays for such failures."