Safety issue raised in Dulles rail bridge project

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thirty-two years ago, the Virginia transportation department drove dozens of steel pilings 50 feet into the ground near the West Falls Church Metro station. Encased in concrete, the pilings formed foundations that one day could hold up a bridge carrying Metro trains across Interstate 66 to Dulles International Airport.

The foundations sat under the Orange Line tracks, the highway and the Dulles Toll Road undisturbed and forgotten. In one spot, between the Metrorail tracks, an unfinished eight-foot-tall concrete column stands atop a foundation. With its cap of rebar sprouts, it has served as nothing more than a curiosity for train riders.

Now Metro is being extended to Dulles. And the condition of those footings is at the center of a federal safety inquiry because of concerns that any bridge built on them could collapse if there was a structural failure.

At issue is whether enough testing has been done on the pilings within the pier foundations. Until federal officials intervened, Dulles Transit Partners, the contractor building the first 11.7 miles of the $5.2 billion, 23-mile Silver Line, resisted testing most of the foundations, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post through Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews.

"We have genuine, factual concerns about their engineering plan," said Peter M. Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, which is conducting an investigation.

Dulles Transit Partners has done load-bearing tests on pilings in two foundations and has agreed as a result of the inquiry to test pilings in seven more, but the contractor has no plans to test pilings in two others, documents show.

Without load-bearing tests, there is no way to determine whether the pier foundations can bear the weight of the bridge and the trains running between East Falls Church and Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

Dulles Transit Partners spokesman Howard N. Menaker called the safety tests "an ongoing conversation" among the contractor, the FTA and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the construction.

"It's never a matter of some hard-and-fast position of a contractor," he said.

Rogoff said he is concerned about management of the project by the airports authority, which provided "unacceptable" and "sloppy" responses when asked by his staff whether Dulles Transit Partners is cutting corners on safety. He cited "problems with the authority's representations to us . . . that raise questions as to all of the other representations" the authority has made on the safety of the bridge design.

Tara Hamilton, an airports authority spokeswoman, said officials managing the rail project met last week with the FTA and are preparing a testing plan.

"We want to make it very clear . . . that we are responsible for the project," she said. "We appreciate them giving us guidance about what they're looking for."

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