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Authorities Cringe as Va. Garage Crumbles

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Signs of trouble with the Herndon-Monroe park-and-ride garage surfaced long before the first commuter's car rolled into the $20 million facility off the Dulles Toll Road that Fairfax County opened in 1999.

The general contractor, Driggs Corp., was 256 days late in finishing, records show. During construction in 1997, cracks appeared in pre-cast concrete pieces intended to support the four-deck, 1,600-space structure. An engineering consultant hired by the county said that, with repairs, the concrete would be sound.

But fresh cracks appeared last spring and chunks of concrete began falling away, creating safety concerns that prompted officials to fence off about 100 spaces.

A new study found "significant deterioration" in the garage roof because of the poor quality of the concrete. Drains were misplaced and inadequate for dealing with storm runoff. In some spots, water and salt had eaten through the concrete and exposed the reinforcing steel bars to corrosion. The engineering firm, Walker Parking Consultants, also questioned whether the garage had adequate supporting steel to withstand high winds or earthquakes.

For Fairfax officials, who take pride in their reputation for efficient management, a $20 million garage that starts to crumble after less than 10 years of use is an embarrassment. Not to mention a major inconvenience for hundreds of commuters who rely on Fairfax Connector bus service between the garage and Reston, Herndon and the West Falls Church Metro station. An advisory on the Fairfax Connector Web site says drivers should expect the garage to be full by 7:45 a.m.

The county says the building is safe but needs considerable work. Although repairs have restored some of the spaces closed in the spring, the roof level was taken out of service in mid-December for structural repairs and waterproofing, eliminating 350 parking spots. They are scheduled to be reopened gradually, beginning in late March. Fixes in other areas will take most of the year and require additional space closures. The total cost is estimated at $5 million.

County records show that complaints about the condition of the garage date to 2003, when commuters cited burned-out lights and unplowed, untreated portions of the roof during winter. In response to a complaint from Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), then-transportation director Young Ho Chang promised "consistent maintenance and ensurance of the safety of the facility."

But there was little follow-up.

"This is a high-demand garage," said Hudgins, who expressed her concerns about falling concrete to County Executive Anthony H. Griffin in a March memo. "This level of deterioration in a heavily used public facility constructed under county auspices that is only seven years old is totally unacceptable," she wrote.

Officials said they have little legal recourse. Driggs filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and Concrete Structures of Richmond, the concrete subcontractor hired by the firm, has gone out of business.

Fairfax officials said that their quality control and oversight of big construction projects is sound and that they are at a loss to fully explain what happened.

"I can't look at the situation and see anywhere where we dropped the ball," Public Works Director Jimmie D. Jenkins said.

But county records and interviews reveal a series of checks and safeguards that fell short.

The county had a construction-materials testing lab of its own until it was closed in 1992 because of budget cuts. Since then, Fairfax has typically used outside quality-control consultants to oversee projects at various stages. But Concrete Structures was not monitored at first because its plant had been inspected and certified by an industry accrediting organization, the Chicago-based Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute.

When cracks first appeared, the county retained Froehling and Robertson, a Richmond engineering firm, to observe the rest of Concrete Structure's work on the project. That included checking the content of the concrete mix for the proper level of what construction professionals call "air entrainment."

Because water expands when it freezes, tiny air bubbles are dispersed into the concrete mix, creating a system of pores to accommodate ice crystals and relieve pressure within the concrete. Without adequate air entrainment, concrete cracks and crumbles more easily. According to county records, Froehling and Robertson's tests, conducted between June 1997 and June 1998, showed the concrete with sufficient air content.

But when new cracks emerged last year, core samples of the concrete taken in April by Concorr, a Sterling testing firm, showed the air content to be "much lower than recommended."

Sam Kirby, president of Froehling and Robertson, said that he cannot specifically account for the decline in air content but that a number of other factors, including weather and maintenance, come into play.

Jenkins theorized that something added to the concrete might have had a destabilizing effect. In any event, he said, the county would not attempt to hold Froehling and Robertson, or any other party, legally responsible because of the difficulty in establishing the exact cause of the deterioration.

"It is also difficult for us to put together a complete and accurate picture of what happened back in 1997-98 with the precasted units," Jenkins said in an e-mail last week.

Hudgins said she was concerned about the level of oversight brought to project by outside consultants. "Anytime we outsource, we have to pull in the same level of due diligence," she said.

Jenkins said the county testing lab would not have detected the air entrainment issue.

Another red flag raised by Walker was the absence of certain steel connections within portions of the concrete. Ordinarily, the steel creates a "diaphragm action" that absorbs forces encountered during high winds or earthquakes. "Since diaphragm action is an essential design element we find it difficult to believe that such an important issue was not considered," Gregory J. Neiderer, Walker's lead engineer on the garage study, wrote to a county official in August.

The county asked the Consulting Engineers Group of San Antonio, the original design engineer on the project, to review its calculations. Walter Korkosz, the firm's president, told county officials in an e-mail that he was confident that the design, although different than the one described by Walker, was sound.

The county's relationship with Driggs, the low bidder on the Herndon-Monroe project, was marked by a series of claims and counterclaims over problems with the garage.

John Driggs, president of the Capitol Heights firm, did not return a phone message. But according to county records, the company said the 256-day delay was attributable to the difficulties with Concrete Structures. The firm said the project was also complicated by groundwater and "topographical anomalies" at the site. The two sides came to a contract settlement, approved by the Board of Supervisors in July 2001, in which the county paid Driggs an extra $50,000 for additional work and withheld $216,000 from its total fee.

That same year, Driggs was in a dispute with the Virginia Department of Transportation for being months behind schedule on an Interstate 64 interchange near Williamsburg. The Newport News Daily Press, citing VDOT files, reported in 2003 that the firm used improper equipment and unapproved concrete mix.

The county has built other garages in recent years, at the John F. "Jack" Herrity and Martha Pennino government office buildings and the public safety center. Another is under construction at the Burke Virginia Railway Express station. Officials said they are confident that they will not have the same durability issues.

Still, they said they have taken away some lessons from the Herndon-Monroe experience. One is to exercise more care in vetting and overseeing precast concrete subcontractors. Officials said they are also discussing a program of preventive maintenance and periodic inspections for its garages, one that was promised in 2003.

Nick Manetto, a Reston commuter who uses the garage, has had to alter his schedule to arrive early to get a space. He said he would like to see it in better shape.

"I hope the county is a bit more diligent on this front going forward," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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