Federal investigator to probe oversight of rail bridge

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009; B01

The federal inspector general for transportation launched an audit Monday of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, prompted by a dispute over safety testing for a bridge that will carry trains over Interstate 66.

Auditors will evaluate why federal officials overseeing the contractor were not alarmed earlier by its decision not to test most of the old foundations it plans to use to support the bridge, sources familiar with the audit said.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Dulles Transit Partners, which is building the first 11.7 miles of the rail line, had proposed load-bearing tests for just two of 11 foundations it wants to use in the bridge before the Federal Transit Administration began a safety inquiry into the issue this summer. The foundations were built in 1977 near the West Falls Church Metro station. Key records that could help determine how safe they are have been lost.

"The need . . . to focus on safety and quality of construction on all transit projects is underscored by the deadly June 2009 [Red Line] crash," assistant inspector general Joe Comé wrote in a letter announcing the audit to FTA Administrator Peter H. Rogoff, calling the Silver Line a "high-profile infrastructure project." The FTA is paying $900 million of the $2.6 billion cost of the first leg of the rail line.

Auditors will examine how well the agency is overseeing the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is managing the project. The authority is monitoring Dulles Transit Partners, a joint venture of Bechtel Infrastructure and URS (formerly Washington Group International), which designed and is building the extension.

Airports authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said the agency "will provide whatever information would be helpful to the FTA."

"We're responding to their concerns about the piers," she said.

The inspector general warned the FTA in an audit two years ago that it needed to closely monitor the airports authority and said the authority would "be challenged" by managing the complex project. In the 2007 audit, the inspector general cited the airports authority's "lack of experience in transit construction."

Rogoff said recently that 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 was cutting corners on safety.

Rogoff has also criticized his staff's handling of the issue, acknowledging "sloppiness and inattentiveness within my agency."

FTA spokesman David Longo said in a statement that the agency has taken steps to improve its oversight of the rail project, increasing visits by federal staff members to the rail offices in Vienna "to address the wide array of both safety and project management concerns." In January, an oversight contractor will monitor the day-to-day operations full time, Longo said.

The airports authority is preparing a revised testing plan for the foundations, Hamilton has said.

The complex oversight of construction by the airports authority, the federal transit agency and numerous consultants hired by each is designed to strengthen management of the project. But in the case of the elevated guideway that will carry trains between East Falls Church and Wiehle Avenue in Reston, it took the concerns of the project's former bridge manager, Steve T. Mackey, to bring attention to safety testing of the foundations buried up to 50 feet underground.

After a crew discovered 13 foundations in 2007, project engineers concluded that to save time and reduce costs, 11 of them, along with several new ones, could be used to support the guideway. Although the historical drawings were missing, Dulles Transit Partners decided to test steel pilings in just two foundations, records show. Under pressure from the FTA, the contractor has proposed testing nine foundations.

Mackey said he urged more load-bearing tests but was overruled. He eventually contacted Comé, who referred the issue to FTA officials in November 2008. But it was six months before the FTA launched an inquiry that Rogoff acknowledged was inadequate.

In a letter Monday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) urged airports authority chief James Bennett to "heed the advice of the FTA" and require Dulles Transit Partners to "conduct the necessary tests" to ensure the project's safety.

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