Montgomery, Metro officials deeply involved in troubled transit center project

While a consultant’s report blames private contractors hired by Montgomery County for flaws that have left the $120 million Silver Spring Transit Center unsafe and unusable without major repairs, documents show that county and Metro officials have been deeply involved from the beginning.

Montgomery and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) staff regularly attended progress meetings with designer Parsons Brinckerhoff and general contractor Foulger-Pratt. They were copied on the mountain of daily reports from the Colesville Road construction site generated by Foulger and Robert B. Balter Co., the inspections and materials testing firm.

Metro officials made frequent visits to the site. Under the terms of its memorandum of understanding with the county, they had the right to approve design drawings and construction changes and, under certain circumstances, to stop work.

Montgomery’s General Services Department, the lead county agency on the project, has had five full-time staff — more than the usual complement — supervising work from a temporary office overseeing the center. The county’s Department of Permitting Services reviewed design drawings for compliance with building and safety codes and met with all major contractors to discuss their roles before construction permits were issued.

The county’s version of the project’s unraveling — it is more than two years behind schedule and tens of millions of dollars over budget — has been met with some skepticism.

Concrete issues at the Silver Spring Transit Center

“There is no way a thinking person can believe that the county has no responsibility for the outcome of this project,” said County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring).

Judah Lifschitz, an attorney representing Foulger-Pratt, said last week that the county was responsible for 509 days of delay between June 2011 and March 2013, mostly attributable to construction changes forced by problems with the building’s design. The county disputes Foulger’s claim.

“It’s interesting how the county has portrayed itself,” Bryant Foulger, the firm’s managing principal, said in an interview this month. “It’s, ‘We’re just like a homeowner, we just wanted someone to come in and build a kitchen for us.’ As though they had another full-time job.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has taken pains to set a transparent and forthcoming tone, especially with material that places blame on the private contractors. The report from the consultant, KCE Structural Engineers, which was commissioned by the county, was posted on the General Services Department’s Web page, along with 10 gigabytes of supporting documents and exhibits.

Leggett said he is satisfied that the county has been completely forthright about where accountability rests.

“We have a report that the county feels pretty clear about,” he said. “But if there are questions about it, they will be considered through the legal process.”

The condition of the three-level concrete structure, which is due to undergo repairs this summer, has driven a wedge between the county and WMATA, which began the venture nearly a decade ago as partners. Last week, county officials disclosed an April 12 letter from Metro saying that it would no longer take control of and operate the facility upon completion — a provision of the memorandum of understanding. County officials said they believe that negotiations with WMATA will continue.

The county’s primary role was administrative and managerial, not directly involved with the execution of engineering and construction plans, according to David Dise, the county’s director of general services. A trio of general services project managers, all of whom make more than $100,000 a year, have spent much of their time reviewing requests for construction plan changes by Foulger-Pratt and making sure the right contractors were on the site when needed. They also tracked “critical path” items — construction tasks that needed to be completed before other work could begin — to make sure they were done in proper sequence.

“The public assumes that the county must be doing technical review or engineering. That’s not our role,” Dise said.

He said his team was not, for example, responsible for what the county contends is a key misstep in construction.

On Jan. 12, 2011, workers poured 50 cubic yards of concrete into a 760-square-foot section of the center’s second level. According to KCE, drawings called for placement of “post-tensioned” steel inside the section prior to pouring (Foulger disputes this). Post-tensioned steel strands, encased in plastic and hydraulically tightened after the concrete hardens to a predetermined degree, are intended to strengthen the structure. The lack of post-tensioning left this section and a similar-sized slab of roadway on the other side of the second level too weak to withstand the daily pounding from large passenger buses, KCE concluded. The sections will have to be pulled out and repoured with post-tensioned steel.

The daily report by Balter, the inspections firm, makes no mention of the absence of supporting steel. The report also lists two county general services employees and a WMATA staffer as on the site that day, although it is not clear whether they witnessed the concrete pouring.

Dise said that he would not want his staff intervening in technical decisions by the contractors, such as whether a given section of the structure was ready for concrete. Such actions, he said, could be seen as relieving contractors of responsibility in the event of errors.

Dise said that from his vantage point, management of the project went smoothly and his staff performed to expectations.

“The county was doing what the county does successfully every day on dozens of projects. It was managing the work,” he said.

In at least one instance, records show, county staff flagged potential trouble but was overruled. In April 2010, Georgios Mavrommatis, a plan reviewer for the Department of Permitting Services, was looking at drawings for a long, curved wall along the northeast section of the center. The plan called for a horizontal concrete slab, the building’s floor, to be placed up against the vertical wall without slip joints, which relieve pressure and allow the slabs to move slightly. Without them, Mavrommatis said, there was the potential for the concrete cracking.

Douglas Lang, a Parsons Brinckerhoff engineer, said the structure “should be able to accommodate” the pressures as is, according to minutes of a May 11, 2010 meeting. But it was agreed that the project’s concrete and steel subcontractors should look at the question. They ultimately deferred to Lang, according to correspondence, citing the transit center’s “unique geometry,” and the county went along.

“DPS stated that they are only making observations and Doug’s the engineer of record who did analysis,” meeting minutes said.

By October 2010, cracks and exposed steel were visible throughout the section in question.

Metro employees also spoke up when they saw problems, raising concerns about cracks as soon as they surfaced in 2010. Metro also raised questions about the pace of Foulger’s progress, citing what it called “significant schedule slippage” at a July 2011 meeting.

Metro joined the county in rejecting the initial fixes proposed by Parsons Brinckerhoff to address cracking, a latex application that one county official derided as “magic in a bucket.”

“WMATA stated for the record that they believe any remediation plan must be paired with a determination of cause,” according to minutes of a March 14, 2012, meeting. “To date this has not been done.”

Metro officials complained privately that they often failed to receive complete written responses from the county to the concerns they raised about concrete problems.

Asked whether the agency could have done anything differently to avoid the situation it finds itself in with the center, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel declined to comment.

“The documents tell our story,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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