The state’s chief bridge engineer has been fired, and one other Department of Transportation employee demoted, in the wake of design flaws that caused cracks in the first batch of new Highway 520 bridge pontoons.
Jugesh Kapur, head of the DOT’s Bridge and Structures office, confirmed in a phone interview Friday that he was let go. Kapur said he has no other comment at this time.
Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth issued the disciplinary letters April 5, spokesman Lars Erickson said Friday. He said DOT wouldn’t release the letters or identify the two employees Friday, saying a Seattle Times’ request for the records must first be reviewed, and the two employees have a chance to object, before any disclosure. These will be the only people disciplined, Erickson said.
Repairs and redesigns of the pontoons are expected to cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, wiping out the savings that DOT claimed when it received low bids in 2010.
A state investigative report, by internationally-known 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 to get the floating 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. But DOT’s own engineers were confused about the division of responsibility, and the state’s design included mistakes.
While the first six pontoons were cast in May 2012, a high tension cable broke through the corner of one pontoon, forcing retrofits to others in the Grays Harbor casting basin. And the geometry of thick “bolt beams,” where the end walls of pontoons will be fastened together on Lake Washington, created stresses that generated long cracks in the walls. To fix these, the DOT will add more high-tension steel cables, and squeeze the pontoons from either side as diagrammed below:
Paula Hammond, former DOT secretary, also said the design team took shortcuts, including a failure to run models that would have predicted the cracking problems.
As head of bridges and structures, the 52-year-old Kapur earned about $127,000 as of 2010, for a broad range of duties that include maintaining some 3,000 crossings. Kapur was in the news describing DOT fixes to halt settlement of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, for years after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The bridge office conducted extra reviews in the wake of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 — Washington state DOT reviewed the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge and 47 others supported by steel trusses. The state DOT’s bridges tend to be more structurally sound than the national average but maintenance funds are running low.
New Gov. Jay Inslee appointed a new secretary, Lynn Peterson, who took office in March. Floating-bridge construction is now expected to last well into 2015.