HOUSTON, Texas — Repeated delays have pushed back the completion date of the new Harbor Bridge, with one of the most significant of those delays coming from the impact of removing the engineer of record — FIGG Bridge Engineers — from the bridge's main span of the project.
But, the new Harbor Bridge is not the only major bridge in Texas in which FIGG was the engineer of record, spans a major ship channel, costs around the same price, and was also delayed for nearly two years.
"I did not want to be rolling around in my grave knowing that there is something I could have done and failed to do," said Adrian Garcia, Harris County Commissioner.
Garcia is speaking about his role in pushing for an independent audit of FIGG's work on the new Ship Channel Bridge near Houston shortly after taking office in 2019 after being briefed on the project.
He had learned about the Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse that killed six people in March of 2018. FIGG was also the engineer of record on that project and the National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that multiple design errors and "load and capacity calculation errors" were the likely cause of failure.
Harris County Commissioners hired COWI North America in March of 2019 to review the work of FIGG, presenting their findings a year later. Garcia says when the report was issued he was shocked.
"21 significant findings that were not positive attached to this design," Garcia said. "That's when I said ok, what do we need to do?"
The decision, ultimately made by Harris County Commissioners, was to not only fire FIGG from the project but to demolish every aspect of the bridge that had flaws, which led to a two-year halt on construction.
"As we were evaluating it, we put safety above all else, unfortunately, we were already under construction, and some of the aspects of the bridge that were already constructed had design flaws," said Roberto Trevino, executive director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, which oversees the contractors on the bridge.
This came before the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) suspended FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc.from participating in any federally funded projects after the National Transportation Safety Board found Figg responsible for the Florida Collapse. While FIGG was banned from bidding on new projects, it could complete any projects it had already been awarded.
The process for demolition included using high-pressure water jets in order to remove flawed design pieces while leaving anything usable intact, Trevino said.
"It has to be done very carefully, it's not as simple as just taking a wrecking ball to what was built, we really needed to preserve the foundations, the good foundations that were already in place underground, so it had to be very methodical demolition of existing work," he said.
When asked about the potential safety risk if commissioners had done nothing, Garcia and Trevino said it was not a matter of if the bridge would have failed, but when.
"I don't know if it would have been immediately or 10 years from now, but I am told by knowledgeable engineers that I respect that it would have failed," Garcia said.
The cost to demolish most of what was designed by FIGG and hire a new engineer cost Harris County $300 million, bringing the total cost of the bridge to $1.3 billion. But, it's a cost engineers say could have saved lives and more in reconstruction.
"It would have easily been in the billions of dollars had these steps not been taken in the time they were taken," Trevino said.
Trevino also says that they are working with the Harris County Attorney to see what legal avenues they may have in recouping funds from Figg.
Documents obtained by 6 Investigates reveal similarities in design flaws for both bridges, including concerns that the bridges could not withstand hurricane-force winds. Original design plans for the new Ship Channel Bridge called for pre-cast concrete pieces to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, similar to construction at the new Harbor Bridge. That design has been replaced in Harris County, replaced with traditional steel cables under concrete.
But, while there are similarities, there are differences.
The new Harbor Bridge is called a design-build, where the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) hires a contractor (Flatiron/Dragados LLC, or FDLLC) who then hires everyone else on the project, like the designer (FIGG) and construction crews, which only answer to the contractor. The new Ship Channel Bridge is a design-bid-build, where Harris County hires the contractor and the designer separately, who have to answer to the county directly.
The price of the two bridges, while similar in the beginning, could be significantly different. The revised new Harbor Bridge contract is just over $880 million dollars, with $788 already paid out to FDLLC. However, there are a multitude of different change orders, or additional charges FDLLC is requesting from TxDOT, that have yet to be decided on, and could potentially push the total to well over a billion dollars.
Thousands of documents obtained via a public information request reveal the strained relationship between TxDOT and FDLLC over the last few years.
Those documents reveal that despite hiring a new engineer of record, some design flaws highlighted by TxDOT failed to be addressed by the new engineer, Arup-CFC Engineers.
Mobilization has begun to restart construction on the main span of the bridge with one of the five major safety concerns addressed by FDLLC, after work was halted earlier this year.
"It took too long to get to this point where we have resolution and we have the contractor that's stepping forward saying yes, we agree to resolve it to TxDot's satisfaction," said TxDOT's Executive Director Mark Williams in an interview earlier this year.
6 Investigates originally reached out to TxDOT on November 4 to ask why portions of the New Harbor Bridge designed by Figg were not changed by the new engineer of record.
They responded two weeks later, after our deadline, and told us we would have to speak with Flatiron/Dragados LLC (FDLCC).
We asked FDLCC for an interview, but they told us TxDOT would have to give them permission to speak and had not done so.
We also reached out to FIGG to ask about its involvement with both bridges, but they declined an interview.
TxDOT disputes these two bridges should be compared at all and responded with this statement.
I am unaware of any comparison that exists between the New Harbor Bridge Project and the Harris County project other than the fact that FIGG was at one time the engineer of record for both projects. And, TxDOT has previously informally provided KRIS-TV information that supports this fact. If there are other comparisons, KRIS-TV has failed to clearly identify them so that TxDOT may respond.
As you know, FIGG is no longer the engineer of record for the Harbor Bridge Project and identified, and independently confirmed, design concerns are being addressed by TxDOT, the new engineer of record and the developer. This information has been publicly announced and made available to the public on TxDOT’s website for months.
It would be unfortunate – and a disservice to your viewers and the entire Coastal Bend community - if KRIS-TV were to air a story based on inaccurate, ill-informed or just plain unfounded assumptions solely for the sake of justifying time, effort and money spent on an “investigation” of the Harbor Bridge Project.
TxDOT expects KRIS-TV to air a story that presents the Harbor Bridge Project to the public fairly, accurately and in context and does not rely on supposition or non-existent comparisons in an attempt to portray a situation that does not exist.