What can the Florida bridge collapse mean for the infrastructure bill?
March 19, 2018
Over the past several weeks, there have been numerous congressional hearings for the infrastructure bill. One of the biggest items on the agenda for the Trump administration is streamlining the permit process and projects moving faster. We now have a wrench thrown into the mix: Last week’s Florida bridge collapse.
Florida bridge incident
First, the facts that are available so far.
Six people were killed and eight cars were trapped after a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University in Miami on Thursday, March 15. Support cables had loosened on the bridge, causing it to collapse.
The bridge was installed less than a week before on Saturday, March 10. The bridge gave students a safe way to cross the busy highway beneath. In a region susceptible to tropical storms, the bridge design allowed it to withstand hurricane-force winds of a Category 5 storm and last 100 years.
Just two days before the bridge collapsed, the lead engineer of the bridge reached out to the Florida Department of Transportation to report a crack. The engineer left a voicemail, which was not received until after the bridge collapsed. According to a transcript released by FDOT, the engineer was not too concerned about the crack:
“From a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that.”
During a news conference, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt mentioned that part of the investigation will look into the practices of the contractors on the projects. As of press time, Sumwalt does not yet have answers to questions about what protocols are in place to ensure the bridge was safe after installation.
The pedestrian bridge was a local agency project, not an FDOT project.
Figg Engineering was the bridge designer, and Munilla Construction Management was contractor building the structure. The Construction Engineering and Inspection contractor was Bolton Perez and Associates.
Louis Berger was the contractor conducting the required independent, secondary design check. According to FDOT, the firm is not pre-qualified by the department, a requirement per the agreement with Florida International University.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Miami-Dade County backed Munilla Construction Management for an $800 million bridge between Miami and Miami Beach. The county supported the company in a lawsuit to block officials from awarding the contract to a competitor. Munilla Construction Management and its owners have also given generously to local, state and federal candidates.
Reports indicate that the building of the bridge was using Accelerated Bridge Construction. ABC is bridge construction that uses innovative planning, design, materials, and construction methods in a safe and cost-effective manner to reduce the onsite construction time that occurs when building new bridges or replacing and rehabilitating existing bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s website.
Trump’s infrastructure bill
Admittedly, it is too soon to determine why the Florida bridge collapsed. Not even NTSB has any answers this soon into the investigation. However, there are a lot of potential answers that can directly relate to the infrastructure bill that is already in a year-long delay.
One of the provisions that the federal government is championing is one that will streamline the permit processes. According to numerous congressional hearings, an infrastructure project can take up to a decade from start to finish due to a highly inefficient permit process.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has explicitly said that this provision will not have a negative impact on environmental issues. Other hearing witnesses say that only a small fraction of projects face a burden by the National Environmental Policy Act.
So which permitting policies will the infrastructure accelerate?
What if the reason why the Florida bridge collapsed was due to inefficiencies stemming from a sped-up process?
In addition to using the ABC method, the bridge was a year ahead of schedule. It is possible that the acceleration of the project may have contributed to the crash.
What if NTSB reaches that conclusion before Congress finally drafts an infrastructure bill? Will lawmakers go back to the drawing board, further delaying the bill? Should they?
The point I’m trying to make is that this bridge collapse happened during a time when the crumbling infrastructure is a top priority for the White House. One of the solutions is to speed up projects.
Is the Florida bridge incident a cautionary tale of what happens when we move too quickly? Or is this an anomaly that we cannot extrapolate a bigger problem from?
NTSB will find those answers. Hopefully, the agency will come to a conclusion before Congress gets too deep into the infrastructure bill.