Port Mann Bridge builder Kiewit faces construction concerns in the U.S.

Intrepid reporter Dave White of News 1130, came across a big story today…. http://www.news1130.com/news/local/article/420521–concerns-raised-in-us-around-bc-highways-contractor

“SEATTLE (NEWS1130) – Some alleged major problems with massive construction projects have been exposed in the US, involving a contractor also hired to build and maintain BC highways. The accusations centre around work done by Kiewit.

One of the apparent problems is near Seattle where Kiewit is rebuilding the SR 520 Floating Bridge over Lake Washington. Tracy Vedder is an investigative reporter with KOMO News; she tells us pontoons built to float the bridge may be failing.

“They’re basically marine structures,” she describes. “They need to be able to float and they need to be watertight. The first cycle of six pontoons that came out of Aberdeen that were constructed primarily by the prime contractors, Kiewit, has developed … quite extensive leaks.”

She says Kiewit is being investigated in California after allegations of construction flaws on the $6.5-billion rebuild of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

“There were some significant construction issues,” she tells us. “It’s being built specifically to withstand a major earthquake in the future.”

Vedder had difficulty getting a response from Kiewit, but they eventually got in touch. “They did say that they stand firmly behind the safety and quality of the work they’ve done in all of the bridges they’ve built in North America.”

However, the company deferred her questions about the SR520 project to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Vedder says this all comes as the Seattle Mariners sue Kiewit for problems with steel structures at Safeco Field.

She emphasizes her work isn’t done yet. “There’s a lot more to find out.”

In an e-mail from a BC Ministry of Transportation spokesperson, the province says it has complete confidence in Kiewit-Flatiron, and that the contractor was selected after an extensive and multifaceted process. The ministry insists work on projects like the Sea to Sky Highway and Port Mann/Highway 1 Improvement Project has been frequently audited to ensure the highest standards are met, and that any problems found are the responsibility of Kiewit to repair.

Kiewit has had its problems in BC, most recently with a retaining wall rebuild at the Cape Horn Interchange. WorkSafe BC also investigated a worker’s death from a falling boulder at a dam project in 2008 in which safety provisions were brought into question.

News1130 has made requests for comment from Kiewit. We’re hoping to hear back from the the contractor today”

Interesting news and compelling to those who follow the transportation titans in BC closely, like both Dave and I do.

Do a little more searching on this Seattle floating bridge story and you find a host of other issues associated with that bridge, like workers drinking on the job, and contract terms that mean lucrative bonuses for the builder on one end… even if their own delays on the other end were behind it.

More alarming, are public records that indicate Kiewit installed faulty components despite being advised by a Washington State DOT engineer that he could not structurally approve it:

“Now the Problem Solvers have uncovered a new structural problem buried in thousands of documents we obtained through the Public Records Act: The type of structural weakness that could be as catastrophic as WSDOT’s own animation from 2007 depicting how the old bridge might come apart in a severe windstorm.  The key is the joints between pontoons and how they are connected with rebar called Hook Bars.

Internal WSDOT e-mails from last spring show that structural rebar in Pontoon V was “missing”. WSDOT’s own engineer Patrick Clarke noted that he could not “structurally approve it” without those essential pieces.  In spite of that, documents show that contractor Kiewit opted to ignore Clarke’s recommendations for repair, and quote “proceed at risk”.

Kiewit went on to do the same with the two other large pontoons so all three now on the lake are missing that critical rebar.  A second WSDOT engineer also found this was “not structurally acceptable.”  Documents and our insider also indicate that, just like in the WSDOT animation, the loss of that critical rebar would weaken the joints by as much as 50 percent, and could cause a similar “unravelling” in a severe, 100 year, windstorm event. “

The KOMO investigative reporter, Tracy Vedder, displays her exacting nature for facts in this telling email exchange between the herself and officials who are so busy spinning answers that they occasionally wrap themselves up in their own words.  http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/3F839B0E-7223-4D5D-A1AD-F0683F9FEC82/0/WSDOT_KOMO_Correspondence_Compilation.pdf

Now, when we take a look at the San Francisco- Oakland bridge KOMO reporter Tracy Vedder mentions above, we find another concerning scenario, and another case of  officials stating everything is fine, while documentation shows otherwise. http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/26/4519092/caltrans-records-reveal-concerns.html

“A builder of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridgefailed to disclose that a 19-foot section of concrete in the foundation of the span’s signature tower had not hardened before it was tested. By keeping quiet about the problem, the builder prevented further examination or repair.

The Bee found descriptions of the apparent defect in records provided by Caltrans last fall to reassure the public about the overall stability of the suspension segment of the bridge’s eastern span. Experts said the problem, combined with other construction and testing lapses by the California Department of Transportation and its contractors, raises new questions about the structural integrity of the bridge.

Kiewit-FCI-Manson, a joint venture, built the foundation as part of a $177 million contract. It did not provide the problematic 2007 test results until after a Bee investigation in November showed that a Caltrans employee skipped required test preparation for separate checks of the same foundation and fabricated results on other structures”

The story sparked a federal highways authority investigation into the response of Caltrans ( the state transportation authority) and ultimately a series of errors with testing concrete on other bridges and projects was uncovered.

I took a look at the Safeco field lawsuit, which has been going on for years, and to be fair the basis for the case was not based on Kiewits work, but rather steel products that were built by subcontractor for the project that were problematic. The Mariners sued the build team which included Kiewit for damages and liability.

Both Port Mann builders Kiewit and Flatiron worked on the San Francisco-Oakland bridge build detailed above.

More to come next week, but you might want to refresh your memory on the Public Safety Construction Corruption report that I obtained earlier this year on a freedom of information request…. http://lailayuile.com/2012/06/19/money-and-corruption-are-ruining-the-land/

The truth will set you free…but first, it will piss you off.

And can anyone tell me what is the biggest, as of yet relatively un-reported story of the week? Can you ?  Didn’t  think so, unless you happened to be listening to News 1130 recently, or reading the blog of the Powell River Persuader!   

 Dave White of News 1130 broke the news that – contrary to a press release in 2009, and another one in July of this year – the Port Mann bridge will not be completed a year ahead of schedule after all – but we will begin paying tolls on it, regardless.

From News 1130:

SURREY (NEWS1130) – Drivers who use the Port Mann Bridge will be paying a toll on the new crossing when it opens in 2012, even though it won’t be completely open to traffic.  Project planners say you’ll still notice a significant reduction in traffic volume.

The bridge will be open to eight lanes of traffic late in 2012: three will be general purpose lanes and one HOV in each direction.

Its full capacity is 10 lanes, but the other two won’t be open until a year later, the province’s original projected opening date of December 2013.

As I said, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.

Campbell originally said the bridge was slated to open in 2013.

Then, in April of last year, he said this:

People living south of the Fraser want to see this bridge built; Lower Mainland commuters want to see this bridge built; B.C. businesses want to see this bridge built; and the BC Liberals are building this bridge,” said Premier Campbell. “Finishing earlier means a year less congestion. It means having RapidBus service across the bridge a year earlier. It means the largest-ever investment in new cycling infrastructure will be ready for cyclists a year earlier.”

Yes, that bridge will be finished one year earlier than they thought. Toot those horns, pat yourselves on the back. In fact, Campbell liked the press that received so damn much, the government issued another press release in July of this year, and the press reported again, that the bridge was ” One third complete, on time and on budget ” .

So,after News 1130 broke the story yesterday that the bridge wasn’t going to be finished a year ahead of schedule after all , but we are going to be paying tolls a year ahead of schedule because it is partially open, how did Transportation Minister Shirley Bond, and Premier Gordon Campbell respond? Quite frankly, they didn’t.

After all, it seems there  is some kind of  confusion , a ” mis-communication of facts”, on their part.

According to News1130, Shirley Bond couldn’t be reached for comment. Gordon Campbell’s mouth is shut tight. A representative for the Port Mann project was located for comment :

Pam Ryan speaks for the $3 billion Port Mann/Highway One Improvement Project.  She says eight lanes will be a major improvement over the five available right now.  “The provincial tolling policy is really about tolling for a significantly improved infrastructure where there is a significant benefit.  We know from some of the earlier consultation, undertaken with bridge users and they do support the principles of the toll.”

The toll won’t increase when the bridge fully opens in three years, but is expected to rise over time. 

I highlighted the laughable portion, because I don’t know anyone who supports a toll on this bridge, and in particular it will be harder to swallow if it isn’t even complete!

So, considering the hypocritical nature of this latest development, why is this not being flashed all over the news? This government needs to be called out immediately, because the point is that despite previous assertions to the contrary, the Port Mann Bridge is still not going to be completed a year earlier, and whether or not it is on budget is high speculative as well, considering the auditor general just pointed out how irregular and disputable –  their accounting practices related to the bridge construction are.  

Let me say this. This Port Mann bridge project needs to have a thorough shakedown and review, going back to day 1. I’ve worked on many aspects of this story for the last couple years.

First,  the province announces the new bridge will be a P3 project- a public private partnership – which allegedly reduces cost and risk for the government. It’s passed off as a great day for British Columbia, however the glow began to fade shortly thereafter.

Second, rumours circulate the financing of the preferred bidder, the Connect BC Development Group, is in trouble.

Within a short time , transportation minister at that time, Kevin Falcon announces that the province is going to lend the group the money to finance the project and that it is no longer going to be a P3, which is better because the province can get better lending rates than a contractor could??!! 

This started a whirl of questions about how the province could undertake to finance such a huge amount, and why.  Stories emerged that indicated  the BC government had underwritten  far more than they had admitted to, putting into question not only the math on the deal, but the ethics and nature of reasoning as to why Falcon would even consider such a deal.  ( Interestingly enough, all the Sun links in these bits are no longer around, even in cached form)

To this day, the people of BC have never received an answer, because Falcon claimed the details were private and could not be released to the public. Contractors complained repeatedly to me  that instead of financing  the project, it should have gone to the next best bidder.

From the very beginning, this deal has been secretive,and questionable in every aspect.  It began with the bids, the financing, the discretely conducted, behind-closed-doors dealing, and continues with very public deception on the  incorrect completion date, the budgets and the toll amount .

The people of BC  deserve to know the truth, and every detail of the highly suspect negotiations behind the Port Mann Bridge. They deserve to know how much the government committed itself to covering.

 They deserve to know why a bidder who could not fulfill its obligation still ended up getting a very lucrative bid, when there were other bidders ready, willing and financially able to do the job, and pay for their share.

Most of all, they deserve to know why so much secrecy surrounds this entire project.  In fact, if ever there were a project to be reported to the competition bureau for investigation, this would be the one.

The Port Mann Bridge project is a deal that, quite frankly, may see the taxpayers of BC on the hook for a hell of a lot more than they bargained for, and anything less than a full investigation into all aspects of this deal is unacceptable in my view.

* I contacted Dave White this morning, who has not received comment from Shirley Bond, or the Premier.  I called the Premier’s office and spoke to Mat McInnes,  who told me the premier was not available to comment because he is on ” personal time” for the next two weeks. I am  still awaiting comment from Shirley Bond’s office, and will post it as it becomes available.