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Report Says Confusion Ensued After State Decided to Design Pontoons

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A poorly implemented project-delivery process that combined design-build and conventional design-bid-build created confusion that opened the door to faulty design work on the first four pontoons for Seattle's new Lake Washington floating bridge project, according to an internal analysis of the problems prepared for the Washington State Dept. of Transportation.

The errors could add millions in costs and extend the project deadline, state officials say, compromising anticipated savings from the use of design-build to speed the overall project completion. Replacing the bridge is a priority in the improvements being made to State Route 520, which connects Seattle to points east.

The internal report, separate from the technical evaluation, was prepared by a consultant and members of the WSDOT staff. It says that, in an effort to save time, the agency took responsibility for the design of the pontoons—a critical aspect of the floating bridge—instead of assigning the responsibility to the design-builder.

"The schedule to deliver pontoons and to have the bridge open by 2014 drove decisionmaking in this project and overshadowed effective balancing of other considerations such as risk and cost," the report states.

"As it turned out, this risk allocation resulted in a substantial savings in the bid price of the winning Design-Builder, $367 million, compared to WSDOT's estimate of $547 million," says the internal report.

However, it is not now clear how much of the savings, obtained at a time of intense competition for contracts in 2009, will be eaten up by extra costs.

Five cracks up to .03 in. wide on Pontoon W could leak and therefore require retrofits. The four pontoons created so far, however, are structurally sound, according to a statement by former state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. She left office March 8.

Lynn Peterson, a former transportation advisor to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) has been named as new transportation secretary in Washington and head of WSDOT.

Two Engineers Subject to Discipline

State engineers, who under the project arrangement had responsibility for completing design, are responsible for the errors behind the cracking. Notably, two engineers on WSDOT's staff, operating in an atmosphere of confusion and lateness, failed to stamp and seal the plans.

Hammond says that the two staff members will be disciplined for violating departmental procedures. She did not identify the employees or indicate if the discipline would involve state licensing officials.

Julie Meredith, director of the State Route 520 program, says the technical review panel determined that WSDOT designers failed to check the pontoon's "transverse area and the bolt beams specifically."

"As she [Hammond] explained," says Meredith, the designers "will be held accountable, but they need to be given the opportunity to respond."

As the design-builder prepared to make the first pontoons and began making requests for information, WSDOT failed to incorporate the changes into the contract. The contract with the design-builder, Kiewit-General, "was not modified accordingly" with respect to handling of drawings designated "released for construction," according to the internal report.

The report further stated that state officials were in unfamiliar territory when it came to the floating bridge. In 2009, design-build contracting "at this level" was relatively new to WSDOT, the document states.

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