March 26, 2013

DOWNTOWN SILVER Spring’s transit center — a $112 million depot meant to anchor a revitalized urban hub in Montgomery County — is a sad saga of false starts, inflated plans, bureaucratic tension and now, it appears, bungled construction. When work began in 2008, the schedule envisioned the structure’s completion in late 2010. Now, after more than a dozen delays, it remains unfinished, unusable and probably unsafe, according to a consultant’s damning report.

More likely than not, the next steps will involve litigation as the county seeks to hold its contractors liable for an endless series of delays and repairs to a cracked, leaking structure.

Reading over the project’s chronology — the redundant ceremonies and groundbreakings marking the center’s launch, the multiple problems that have beset the structure’s concrete, the recriminations between county officials and contractors — it’s tempting to wonder if the transit center was the object of some supernatural curse.

But the problems that plague the facility really are the result of human error, including shoddy workmanship in construction and, possibly, inadequate supervision by the county itself.

The transit center’s general contractor, Foulger-Pratt Cos., has insisted that the facility is safe and structurally sound and the concerns are overblown. But soon after concrete was poured in 2010, problems started to become apparent, including flaking and cracking. Inspectors confirmed the flaws; now an exhaustive study by consultants KCE Structural Engineers, commissioned by the county, has documented them in detail.

They include concrete that is too thin in some places, too thick in others and weaker than specifications called for. The flaws in the three-level structure are particularly apparent in the second-level deck, which is meant to accommodate buses, raising the specter of falling concrete chunks that could harm pedestrians and vehicles below.

As things stand, the Metro system, which was supposed to take delivery of the center from the county upon completion, is saying that all bets are off. Who could blame Metro officials for not wanting to be saddled with a white elephant projected to handle some 100,000 people daily by the end of this decade, including commuters using buses and Metro and MARC trains?

Suspicions of shoddy workmanship are focusing on both Foulger-Pratt, based in Rockville, and a contractor that poured the concrete, Facchina Construction, of La Plata. Whether they or others bear responsibility eventually may be determined through litigation.

Meanwhile, the public has a right to ask whether the county exercised effective oversight of a project that remains critical to Silver Spring’s ongoing transformation from what was once a dead, crime-ridden place to a vibrant, citified neighborhood. For now, the transit center remains a unsightly six-acre construction site, inconveniencing thousands of people every day.