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    Haste leads WSDOT to bungle big projects

    Overpriced ferries that list, cracked bridge pontoons. Can we trust transportation officials to manage the Tunnel and other major construction coming our way?
    Inner structures of pontoons for the new SR 520 bridge

    Inner structures of pontoons for the new SR 520 bridge WSDOT

    Necessity can be the mother of invention, but it can also lead to mistakes. One local example is the ferry Chetzemoka and other vessels in the "I-Lean" class of listing ferries.

    When the Washington State Ferries had to suddenly retire its "steel electric" fleet, officials were left without back-ups and had to scramble to get new ferries built that could handle certain routes. As a result, they rushed designs and ended up paying nearly $50 million more for the Chetzemoka than a vessel of similar design. The end result was a ferry that leans to one side, vibrates and uses more fuel than the ferries it replaced. Skeptics doubt the boat will reach its supposed 60-year life-span.

    So what happened? There are a number of reasons for the flawed ferry, including not being able to bid the job more widely, but according to the Everett Herald, "State and Todd [Shipyard] officials say almost all of the gap stems in some way from efforts to get the boat built as quickly as possible." They were forced to rush, ferry officials say. My second grade teacher would reply: Haste makes waste.

    Haste isn't the only thing that makes waste, but it sure helps. Seattle is ground zero for a huge number of mega-projects that will be coming on line in the next four years. The number and scale of the projects proves the myth of Seattle gridlock. Many projects are driven by a sense of urgency: they are required for safety, to prevent doomsday, to boost the economy, to create urgently needed family-wage jobs, to tap funding sources that might disappear, to avoid costly delays.

    Because of that urgency, some have been started before they are fully designed or funded, which adds additional pressures on the designers, engineers and builders. The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement commenced south of the central waterfront before any final decision was made about the tunnel. The new 520 bridge is being built from east-to-west despite the face that there is not yet funding (they're more than a billion dollars short) to build the highway on the Seattle side between Montlake and I-5.

    The 520 bridge is another victim of haste. This week the Seattle Times reported, and WSDOT admitted, that the design of the huge new pontoons that are supposed to keep the floating bridge floating is flawed. We already knew about cracks in the pontoons that showed up due to manufacturing flaws. But much bigger cracks and leaks are now showing up as a result of bad design and failure in oversight by WSDOT.

    According to the Times, the cost of fixing the pontoon flaws will be "tens of millions of dollars, and the bill will go mostly to the public rather than contractors — because the most severe cracking was triggered by what [outgoing Transportation Secretary Paula] Hammond described as the state’s own design errors." WSDOT engineers are said to have violated procedures by failing to make proper design models and conduct tests. In short, WSDOT took shortcuts and didn't catch mistakes. The size and complexity of the mega-project also led to communications breakdowns, according to a Feb. 26th internal report. The tens of millions to fix the problem will come out of the $4.6 billion project's $250 million contingency fund, which still has $200 million left in it. But there's also a long way to go.

    The pontoon problem, again, appears to be due partly to haste. Reports the Times: "The state chose to design the pontoons itself on a fast track (rather than delegate that responsibility to contractors) as a strategy to attract lower bids and to get the floating section built by 2014, a timeline set by former Gov. Chris Gregoire." WSDOT has said that due to the pontoon fiasco, the bridge will not open in 2014, but sometime the following year. Paula Hammond told the Times, "Everybody wants you to take risks, until something goes wrong."

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    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe if the department could return to a mission that actually relates to transportation and moving commerce and commuters from one place to another, rather than being forced by special interests to oversee sub-optimized, myopic, and wasteful projects designed to please affluent neighborhoods, real estate developers and social engineers they could avoid report cards like this one.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Unfortunately Governor Gregoire appointed a long time department veteran to run things. That person had many gifts, but did not understand what it means to be transparently accountable.

    The outcome: the same widely distrusted state department of transportation the what we had over 20 years ago, when sinking bridges and backroom deals led to a 10 year long climb back to some credibility.

    News of the last four years has had the overall effect of making it appear that the state transportation department is run by high handed incompetents - who resist fair scrutiny because they can't survive it.

    This is what happens when too many things are carried by a Secretary surrounded by a moat of erstwhile protectors.

    There are plenty of capable people at the state DOT who have outstanding project management skills.

    Hopefully, the new Secretary will find them and eliminate the old imperial guard that has surrounded the incumbent.

    And here's hoping the new Governor will deliver on the promise of disruptive change, and not create another clique of political cover masters around the management of this important state agency.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    A long time ago I worked for the dreaded Feds. Even back then, we knew that we did not have all the answers for large, transformative projects. We had some $$$ set aside (kind of like 1% for art) for use by Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V;). In one case I worked on (replacement of old, outdated mainframes inside the Cheyenne Mountain (NORAD)) complex an independent, on-site engineer alerted us early-on that the proposed new mainframe did not possess sufficient memory for the intense processing required in decoding trajectories, etc. Thus, we (US Air Force in DC) were able to correct this early on instead of hitting a brick wall at a later, more crucial time.

    While I am not certain, I believe that IV&V; was a legally, mandated requirement for large projects such as this - and the projects noted in this piece might also benefit in this way. Perhaps the legislature should consider (Reuven Carlyle are you listening?) requiring large projects in this state have IV&V; so that we don't end up with these fiascoes again.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    Anyone buying a ferry called "Chetzemoka" obviously if only for that reason doesn't have his head screwed on right! But I've noticed that the greast northwest seems to have it engineering problems. Of world reknown is the infamous Tacoma Narrows is it bridge that disintegrated in a windstorm in the 40s was it? Bucking like a buckaroo on a wild mustant, it sure was something to behold. Then, those falling tiles in the no loner extant Kingdome??? Is it that the engineering schools are defective? Can't think of similar mishaps in NY City where I lived for 25 year, but for the West Side Highway being abandoned in the mid-70s when cars started to plunge through its roadbed onto West Street below - but that was for reasons of failure to keep the highway up and repaired and not letting it rust through after appr. 50 years of service. However, it certainly was indicative of the state of the City and where it was heading. I suppose the Kingdome tiles fall into that category. But certainly not what Mossback enumerates.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 3:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Narrows Bridge fell down because, as a requirement of federal funding, the US Government scrapped the design done by local engineers and turned the project over to an east coast designer who had no familiarity with the venue it would be built in. That was how the bridge got the box-girder sides that proved so fatal in even moderate winds. The original (local) plan had open trusses like the second and third bridges.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mister Burger's conceit: "We can take comfort in knowing that much of the bore tunnel risk is foisted onto the contractors and their insurers."

    The bored tunnel's insanely high risk of catastrophic collapse to vulnerable historic and modern buildings during earthquakes is foisted on the victims buried in the rubble. The risk of a seawall replacement plan that allows water to permeate compounds the bore tunnel risk by making already unstable soils more unstable.

    The risk of widening Mercer West is multi-car pile-ups downhill, the doubling of traffic and statistical accident rate including fatalities through Queen Anne. The risk of gridlock on Alaskan Way is likewise measured in life and limb. Mr Burger, like Wsdot's business-oriented directors and department heads, values money and prestige more than public safety. Mr Burger, you are an idiot.


    Posted Fri, Mar 8, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    I'm sorry, but it is idiotic to ignore a formidable danger, yes, idiotic, scary idiotic. Sirs and madams who still believe the BORE TUNNEL is not an EXTREME danger, in every way imaginable should you trouble yourselves to imagine worst case scenarios, imagining the worst is not casually dismissed. I am sorry to have to insult anyone, yet supporters will not listen to alarming but credible perspective.

    Little doubt new DOT contacts available from Oregon with Lynn will be helpful for Washington State commonsense and practical citizenry, the ivory tower not-educated, and those who somehow feel entitled to leave risk assumptions unquestioned. MercerWestWorst?
    Permeable bay water into unstable soils?
    Perhaps someone should consider the prospects?
    Prospects not related to tourism pocketbook managing.


    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

    Let's not forget that the problem with the new listing ferries is largely the fault of then Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen, who abused her authority to rush through legislation mandating the new ferries because they were needed to serve her constituents on Whidbey Island. In this case, bad politics play at least as large a role as bad engineering project management.

    Posted Wed, Mar 6, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

    That is a very interesting anecdote about Minasian. If I were called in at the last moment to check a structural design (hypothetical, I am not an engineer) I would have a clear motivation to insist on higher standards (justifying my own value and covering my back pocket in case of failure). So Mr. Minasian did what all outside experts do: raise the bar. There would be a strong bias against saying, "design is OK, as is" and presenting his bill. Maybe he was right, maybe not. On another subject; structural engineers carry (what some people call) Errors and Omissions liability insurance which would at least partially cover the cost of a mistake like that made on the design of the pontoons. From what you tell us, Knute, the state carries no such insurance on its own employees. That strikes me as odd.


    Posted Fri, Mar 8, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    Lastly, I'm sorry that what must be admitted as idiotic - to ignore formidable danger - is indeed idiotic. Who still believes the BORE TUNNEL isn't an EXTREME DANGER? Should we trouble ourselves to imagine worst case scenarios? The necessary chore of imagining the worst is NOT casually dismissed. DO YOUR JOB! I'm sorry to insult anyone, but supporters will not consider this alarming, credible perspective.

    New DOT contacts available from Oregon with Lynn will be helpful for Washington State commonsense practical citizenry, the ivory tower not-educated and those who feel entitled to leave risk assumptions unquestioned.
    Permeable bay water into unstable soils below structure?
    Perhaps someone will consider dire prospects unrelated to tourism pocketbook managing?
    Safety prospects. Public health prospects. Ever heard of them?


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