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."
"The events of March 15, 2018, were, by any measure, a tragedy. However, contrary to incomplete prior accident updates, the design of the UniversityCity Pedestrian Bridge at Florida International University was neither the proximate cause, nor a contributing cause, of the construction accident," FIGG said in its 344-page submission to the NTSB. "If, however, the various parties constructing the bridge, inspecting the construction, or moving the bridge into position, fail to comply with (plans, specifications, and requirements), then even a safe design will be compromised."
In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued a damning 115-page report that unequivocally stated the roadway under the bridge should have been closed after the discovery of the cracks.
The FDOT changes announced Monday were made to the Local Agency Program, or LAP, manual, the document that establishes "consistent and uniform practices" for local agencies using FDOT funds for their projects.
Other changes: The FDOT implemented Florida Statute Section 334.175 into its LAP manual. That statute requires all design plans and surveys to be certified by the responsible architect, engineer, surveyor or landscape architect, who must also be registered in Florida.
The Statute also requires FDOT to review design plans to ensure they are in compliance of departmental standards before a project is put out for contract.
On more complex projects, such as the FIU pedestrian bridge, an FDOT manager will be assigned to focus exclusively on those projects to increase the department's involvement and ensure better communications between project consultants and FDOT management.
Although the LAP manual on the FDOT website indicates the document was revised on September 2019, an FDOT spokesperson did not reply to requests by The Miami Herald to specify what portions had been amended.
NTSB board members will hear final investigation findings during a public hearing to be held Oct. 22 in Washington, D.C. The board is expected to announce the probable cause of the collapse and issue its final safety recommendations.
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