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Originally published Friday, April 12, 2013 at 9:37 PM

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State fires top bridge engineer over 520 pontoon flaws

The state’s top bridge engineer has been fired, and another Department of Transportation employee demoted, in the wake of design flaws that caused cracks in the first batch of Highway 520 bridge pontoons.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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The state’s top bridge engineer has been fired, and another Department of Transportation employee demoted, in the wake of design flaws that caused cracks in the first batch of Highway 520 bridge pontoons.

Jugesh Kapur, head of the state’s Bridge and Structures Office, confirmed in a phone interview Friday he was let go, and had no additional comment.

The disciplinary letters were issued April 5 by Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth, said spokesman Lars Erickson, who wouldn’t release the letters or identify either employee. Nobody else will be disciplined, Erickson said Friday.

Repairs and redesigns of the pontoons are expected to cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, wiping out the savings the Department of Transportation (DOT) claimed when it received low bids in 2010.

State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he’s hard-pressed to recall the last time state officials ranked this high were held accountable for a major blunder.

“This is a good step forward,” said King, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

There might be political effects because lawmakers are considering whether to seek a gas-tax increase of up to 10 cents per gallon, and other fees, for new highway lanes, maintenance and ferries. Some GOP lawmakers insist on reforms before they contemplate asking taxpayers for more revenue.

The first three major pontoons are floating on Lake Washington, along with eight smaller pontoons to be attached to the bridge’s flanks for buoyancy. Those three and a fourth one, now moored in Tacoma, need repairs.

There was never any doubt they could float and carry traffic, but unless the cracks are sealed, water seepage might reduce the pontoons’ 75-year design life.

A state investigative report by concrete expert John Reilly blamed the Bridge and Structures Office (BSO), which was trying to carry out instructions by the Legislature and former Gov. Chris Gregoire in March 2008 to get the bridge done by 2014.

The BSO did most of the pontoon design in-house, instead of delegating those details and the financial risk to contracting teams. The goal was to allow bids to be submitted sooner. And in fact, the winning bid by Kiewit-General in January 2010 was $367 million, or $180 million below the engineers’ estimate, to construct the pontoons.

Amid a flurry of late design updates, some of DOT’s own engineers were confused about the fact the state was taking full responsibility for success or failure, the report said.

The pontoons’ run of misfortune began in May 2012, when a high-tension cable burst through the corner of one pontoon, forcing retrofits to others being cast in a Grays Harbor basin.

And the geometry of thick beams, where the end walls of adjoining pontoons will be bolted together on Lake Washington, created stresses that generated long cracks in the walls. To fix those, the DOT will add high-tension steel cables and squeeze the pontoons from the sides.

Paula Hammond, recently replaced as state transportation secretary, said in February that the bridge design team took shortcuts, including a failure to run models that would have predicted the cracks.

Sen. King said the timeline was no excuse and amounts to scapegoating Gregoire, when DOT had ample money and engineers available.

“To tell me two years isn’t enough to design the pontoons, that was hard to believe,” King said.

Kiewit-General apparently didn’t flag the DOT errors before the concrete was poured.

“Our contract did not require a review of the design. The workers building the pontoons are contractors, not designers,” said Kiewit spokesman Tom Janssen.

Kiewit-General is blamed for less-severe cracking that resulted from errors in controlling moisture and temperature as the concrete cured. These were fixed using epoxies and waterproof surface coatings.

As head of the bridge group, Kapur, 52, earned about $127,000 in 2010 for a broad range of duties that include maintaining some 3,000 crossings. DOT’s bridges tend to be more structurally sound than the national average, but maintenance funds are running low.

Kapur was the agency’s public face during inspections and an emergency reinforcement of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, to halt settling after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

His division also conducted reviews of steel-truss bridges in 2007, including Interstate 5’s Ship Canal Bridge, to reduce odds of the sort of collapse that killed 13 people on an interstate bridge in Minneapolis.

Gov. Jay Inslee appointed a new transportation secretary, Lynn Peterson, who took office in March, and inherited Hammond’s request that employees be disciplined.

Kiewit and its partners hoped to assemble the floating segment of the new six-lane crossing by late 2014 to win incentive pay. The contract requires completion by July 2015. The final schedule and costs are being renegotiated between the state and contractors, said Janssen.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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