Safety issue raised in Dulles rail bridge project

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009; A01

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."

Rogoff also had harsh words for his own staff, acknowledging "sloppiness and inattentiveness within my agency" because it had failed to act quickly on a complaint about the issue.

A complex arrangement

Construction of the Silver Line's first leg, a $2.6 billion project, is an engineering challenge and a complicated tangle of government and business relationships.

Dulles Transit Partners is working under an unusual arrangement that Virginia has authorized to improve the efficiency of major rail and road projects.

The contractor, a joint venture of Bechtel Infrastructure, the lead partner, and URS (formerly Washington Group International), negotiated with Virginia officials to design and build the line. The FTA is paying $900 million of the cost. The agency monitors the performance of the airports authority, which oversees Dulles Transit Partners.

In 2007, a soil boring crew rediscovered 13 foundations north and south of I-66, records show. By early 2008, project engineers concluded that to save time and reduce costs, 11 of the old footings, along with several new ones, could be used for the bridge, known as an elevated guideway, said Steve T. Mackey, chief bridge manager for the Silver Line extension until last year.

Mackey, who eventually asked federal officials to investigate, said he left the project in part because of the contractor's response to his safety concerns.

The redesigned bridge was to have new concrete piers erected on the old foundations. Given the footings' age, Mackey said he urged his supervisor, John Rudolf, a project engineer, to conduct load-bearing tests on the pilings to make sure they could withstand the weight of the guideway and the trains.

Key construction documents that could have helped establish the condition of the pilings were missing: inspection and pile-driving records and drawings called "as-builts," which would show how the structures were constructed in the ground, records show. Metro officials could not locate any of the records, documents show.

In an e-mail to the airports authority last spring, Metro engineers expressed concerns that electrical currents could have caused pilings near live tracks to deteriorate. Metro's senior program manager for capital projects, Neil Nott, referred questions about the issue to the airports authority.

Mackey said he was particularly concerned about pilings between the Orange Line tracks just east of the West Falls Church Station. Mackey wanted the tests done even though access to the foundations would be difficult and costly, records show. Pilings in two other foundations in the highway right of way also would be difficult to test.

"If this pier failed, with the highway, the toll road and the Metro line all coming together, an accident would be catastrophic," Mackey said. "How could we take any chances?"

Rudolf overruled him and assured him that the as-built drawings would be found, Mackey said. Records confirm that pilings in two foundations were tested and visual inspections were done on three other foundations.

Mackey said he was furious. "They're going to hang their hat on digging a hole and seeing what the top of the thing looks like," he said. "I'm old enough to know you don't build bridges without testing."

Rudolf did not return several phone calls to his office. Before moving to the private sector, he retired in 1984 as chief engineer of structures for Metro.

The FTA investigates

Mackey, who lives in Fairfax County, said he left the rail project last year partially out of frustration and joined an engineering consulting firm in Tysons Corner as bridge manager.

But the Silver Line bridge continued to worry him. In September 2008, he contacted Joseph W. Comé, the assistant inspector general for highway and transit audits at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Mackey's information persuaded Comé to refer the case to the FTA for a safety inquiry.

No action was taken until May, when an FTA official asked the airports authority to assess whether the contractor's plans were safe, documents show.

On June 22, nine people were killed in the worst crash in Metro history. As he drove down I-66 a few days later, Mackey saw that preparations had begun on the Silver Line bridge. He sent Comé another e-mail.

Comé told him in a return e-mail that he expected a resolution soon.

Within five days, an FTA official recommended that the inquiry be closed. Dulles Transit Partners had agreed to test pilings in three more foundations, for a total of five. During visual inspections of the tops of three other foundations, the caps on some of the piles "were located as depicted on the as-built plans," the memo said.

No further action was recommended.

But an engineering report completed by Dulles Transit Partners in March said relevant historical records "did not include any as-built information, test and inspection records or pile driving records. . . . DTP understands that these records are no longer available."

Neither Hamilton, the airports authority spokeswoman, nor Menaker, the spokesman for Dulles Transit Partners, was familiar with the discrepancy.

Once the inquiry was closed, Comé questioned the contractor's account and pressed FTA officials to dig deeper. The agency asked its consultant on the rail project to review the contractor's testing plan.

Philadelphia-based Hill International concluded in September that although load-bearing tests on pilings in two pier foundations showed no signs of failure, the pilings are "safety critical structures" and should all be tested.

"The foundations, piers and guideway are structural components that cannot fail," Hill wrote. The consultant has also questioned whether enough pilings were tested.

In an interview, Rogoff said the official who failed to act promptly on the referral from the inspector general's office has been reassigned. "It was people taking some very serious material and treating it as routine paperwork," he said.

In an Oct. 2 letter, the Federal Transit Administration told the airports authority that construction of the guideway cannot proceed unless the FTA certifies the safety of the design.

Three weeks later, the authority wrote federal officials that Dulles Transit Partners proposes to test nine foundations and leave two untested.

Unsatisfied, Rogoff wrote to airports authority chief James Bennett, calling the plan "unresponsive and inadequate."

"It is not acceptable for [the airports authority] to 'farm out' fundamental safety determinations to its contractors," he wrote.

As the airports authority prepares its testing plan for submission to the FTA, workers are drilling shafts, installing columns and building abutments for the guideway over I-66.

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