Contractors Fined $86K Over Deadly Florida University Bridge Collapse

September 21, 2018

Contractors that worked on the bridge near a Florida university that collapsed, killing six people, have been fined more than $86,000 for workplace violations.

The Miami Herald reported Tuesday that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the fines for seven safety violations related to the March 15 collapse. OSHA said the contractors didn’t provide adequate safeguards despite serious cracks that had developed on the bridge.

The bridge was to span a busy highway and canal and connect Florida International University’s campus to the neighboring community of Sweetwater.

The bridge was highlighted by FIU officials as an achievement for an accelerated construction method that was supposed to reduce risks to workers and pedestrians and minimize traffic disruption.

When the bridge fell, construction was behind schedule and millions over budget, in part because of a key change in the design and placement of one of the span’s supports, public documents showed.

Construction of the pedestrian bridge that collapsed and killed six people in the Miami area was behind schedule and millions over budget, in part because of a key change in the design and placement of one of its support towers.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public-records request show that the Florida Department of Transportation in October 2016 advised Florida International University and its contractors to move one of the bridge’s main support structures 11 feet (3 meters) north to the edge of a canal, widening the gap between the crossing’s end supports and requiring some new structural design.

The span’s signature, 109-foot-tall (33-meter-tall) pylon was to be built atop a base at the span’s northern end. It was designed for basic support and to contribute to the aesthetics of the bridge, which was touted as an architectural marvel that would connect the rapidly growing university to the nearby community of Sweetwater. In their winning 2015 proposal, designers said the bridge provided “spectacular views” for both pedestrians using the bridge and drivers passing beneath it. They added that the tower could serve as a safety feature because it would have an “eagle-eyed location” for additional lighting and security cameras.

It is still unclear if the design change contributed to the failure. But emails between the school, contractors, Sweetwater city officials and permitting agencies show a project that was behind schedule, which had officials worried that further delays could jeopardize the federal funding.

When the bridge collapsed, the project was already running about $2.6 million over its $9.4 million initial budget, cost-tracking documents from February show. Originally scheduled to be completed in July, the finish date had been pushed back to January 2019.

Difficulties began in late 2016, when the Florida Department of Transportation emailed project officials saying they wanted more room to allow for future widening of the U.S. highway under the bridge, according to the documents. The new position of the tower would be on the north side between the road and the canal.

“This … places the current location of the pylon in conflict with the extra travel lane and would require bridge design modifications,” Alfred Reyna, a transportation department employee working on the bridge project, wrote in an email.

After weeks of back and forth, it was decided to move the pylon 11 feet to the north, sitting near the edge of the canal. According to documents, initial costs for the new design were $204,540, with another $402,723 for construction changes. The final cost was not divulged.

The documents show that further time pressures were put on the tower redesign due to a bottleneck at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps was in charge of permitting certain aspects of the new tower’s footing and other elements but had stopped due to federal budget cuts. Documents show the contractors wouldn’t begin work until the Corp’s permits were finished, and FIU worried delays could jeopardize federal funding.

Five motorists and one worker were killed when the bridge fell onto a busy roadway near Florida International University.

OSHA cited five companies for $86,658 in fines. The companies can contest the findings.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse.

(Associated Press writers, David Fischer, Jason Dearen. Jennifer Kay and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.)

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