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Road should have been closed before FIU bridge collapse, top Florida road engineer told NTSB

Monique O. Madan, Rene Rodriguez and Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- The busy highway under Florida International University's pedestrian bridge, which crumbled in March 2018 and killed six people, should have been closed while crews were trying to repair cracks in a critical support strut, a top engineer with Florida's Department of Transportation told federal investigators.

In a letter to investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board released on Tuesday, Will Watts, the chief engineer for FDOT, wrote that the road should have been "completely closed to traffic if the contractor was undertaking activities that posed a risk to the public. " FIU and its contractor were responsible for asking the state to close Tamiami Trail, he wrote.

"At the core of this issue is sound engineering judgment," he wrote, adding later, FDOT "employees faced with a situation like the one presented by the FIU bridge would have been expected to take immediate action to close the road."

The Sept. 20 letter to NTSB was among more than 6,300 pages of documents and factual reports released by the federal agency as part of its 18-month investigation into the catastrophic failure of the span across Tamiami Trail. The collapse occurred as crew tightened steel rods inside a critical diagonal support strut where numerous cracks had appeared.

Coinciding with the release of federal investigative reports, FDOT on Tuesday issued a statement announcing that it would implement stricter review and approval procedures of federally-funded road construction projects. Watts outlined those changes in the letter to NTSB as well.

Among the most radical changes: FDOT now requires local agencies, their design professionals and contractors to immediately close State Highway System facilities (e.g. roads, bridges, overpasses) "when circumstances present material risks to the traveling public."

 

Any questions regarding road closures must be "immediately brought to the attention of appropriate Department employees."

FDOT was blamed for not closing traffic on the street after a contractor found cracks on the bridge two days before the catastrophic collapse and warned an FDOT engineer via a voicemail message. The engineer said he was unable to listen to the voicemail because he was out of the office on assignment.

In a previous investigative update, the NTSB stated that "errors were made in the design of the 174-foot span" and that the cracks were "consistent" with those errors.

On Tuesday, coinciding with the NTSB release, bridge design company FIGG pushed back against that claim in a news release, saying the accident was because of a "failure by contractors" to follow design plans. The Tallahassee-based business said it hired forensic structural engineering experts Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to conduct its own investigation. That analysis concluded that construction joints at the spot where the bridge failed "were not roughened in accordance with state standards."

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