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?
Crosscut archive image.

Inner structures of pontoons for the new SR 520 bridge

Overpriced ferries that list, cracked bridge pontoons. Can we trust transportation officials to manage the Tunnel and other major construction coming our way?

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."

Of course, not everyone is sanguine about risk, which is one reason Seattle mayor Mike McGinn spent a lot of political capital worrying about the deep-bore tunnel and its impacts. If WSDOT can't build properly working ferries or floating bridges — which it ought to know how to do, having pioneered the field — without huge cost overruns, what can we expect of the tunnel? We can only hope that the internal controls so lacking on the 520 bridge pontoon project are in place for the tunnel; we can take comfort in kn owing that much of the tunnel risk is foisted onto the contractors and their insurers.

This last point puts me in the mind of the Space Needle project, which was private, not public, but was also a rush-job. The chief structural engineer, John Minasian of Pasedena, was called in at the last minute to make sure the tower would stand up. Despite severe time constraints, he insisted on higher standards for wind and earthquake stability and beefed up the foundation design. It is said his changes added $1 million to the costs.

Minasian was, among other things, an expert in tower failures and he wanted to make sure this one wouldn't fail. Structural engineers at that time had an extra incentive to make sure things worked: most of them, like Minasian, didn't carry liability insurance. Haste, and risk, can be handled if the right person with the right controls and incentives is in charge.

WSDOT is admitting that it has to do better and has been advised to review its other mega projects to make sure the engineering, communications and management problems that surfaced with the 520 pontoons aren't happening elsewhere. Shedding daylight on the process will be important. KOMO recently won a court ruling requiring WSDOT to provide unredacted documents on the 520 project's risk management and decision-making process, including the pontoon program.

One WSDOT internal finding was that "'Ways of doing business' — historical and cultural practices strongly influenced negative actions and decisions" regarding the flawed pontoons. Getting at those kinds of cultural issues, a task that will fall to the new transportation secretary, will be essential to fixing the cracks in the pontoons — and the ones in the system.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.