Florida International University embraced the idea of a monument to the institution.
When Munilla Construction Management won a $9.4 million contract three years ago to build a bridge over Southwest Eighth Street, it promised to deliver a design “inspired” by the university and built by FIU’s own alumni.
The company noted that nearly half its team, including the company president and project engineer, were FIU graduates. And it proposed to incorporate an innovative bridge construction method to which the university had dedicated an entire center — something the school could highlight each year at its conference on accelerated bridge construction.
Before it collapsed Thursday, the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity bridge was supposed to be a symbol of prowess for a college that in a few short decades built itself from a commuter school into a scholastic player. More than a safe pathway for the thousands of students living across busy Tamiami Trail in the tiny suburb of Sweetwater, the structure was to be a crown jewel of FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique campus in west Miami-Dade.
But now that it lies in a tragic heap, the project is an institutional liability. As recovery workers strained to remove bodies and pancaked cars from the rubble Saturday, FIU was just beginning the long struggle to dig itself out of the wreckage.
“The bridge collapse stuns us. It saddens us,” University President Mark Rosenberg said in a video statement. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we’d intended.”
The heights of FIU’s hopes for the bridge, which ultimately cost $14 million, were evident just a week ago in the afterglow of what at the time seemed like the successful erection of a 950-ton span of concrete over Southwest Eighth Street. A gaggle of politicians, including U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, gathered to celebrate as a flurry of press releases went out. In the hours after the bridge collapsed, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, an FIU adjunct professor, flew from Washington, D.C., to Miami on the same plane as Rosenberg to view the scene in person.
The men are among the many supporters who’ve rallied around FIU as it’s grown since its establishment at an abandoned airfield in 1972. During that time, the school’s student body has grown to more than 54,000, and it has graduated more than 200,000 people and opened accredited schools of law, medicine and engineering. The university says more than 100,000 of its graduates remain in Miami, occupying some of the most prominent business and political positions in the region, including the mayor of Miami.
But in the aftermath of the bridge’s collapse — a disaster of still unknown causes — FIU was on its own. Though the Florida Department of Transportation and its federal counterpart played important roles in the financing and supervision of the bridge’s design and construction, the university has born the brunt of the fall.
“It’s not an FDOT project. It’s an FIU project,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a press conference at the university the night the bridge fell.
With its employees comprising half the selection team on the project and Rosenberg having final say on the selection of the design-build team, FIU certainly led the charge on the bridge. Going back years, FIU planned, managed and supervised the design and construction of the structure, which killed at least six people when it fell.
The university was also responsible for inspecting the project under a state law that gives colleges autonomy over their own construction, even though the bridge stretched over a state road and into Sweetwater’s municipal boundaries.
Bolton Perez & Associates was hired to conduct construction engineering inspections. But the university remains “exempt from local building code and local jurisdictions,” said Charlie Danger, Miami-Dade County’s retired building chief. “It’s a good thing to have another set of eyes there. It may have helped.”
Miami Dade College, the country’s largest institution of higher learning, dealt with a similar situation when a garage fell at its west campus six years ago, killing four. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that the college was using contracted inspectors who “performed poorly and in an unacceptable manner,” but the college ultimately won millions from its contractor in a lawsuit and was able to move on from the fallout.
It’s not an FDOT project. It’s an FIU project.
Gov. Rick Scott
But this case is different.
Far from a pre-fabricated, commuter school parking garage, FIU’s bridge was a feat of engineering designed to accentuate FIU’s Accelerated Bridge Construction center, a leader in the relatively new field of bridge building in which the structure is built remotely and then elevated into place. And its contractor, MCM, is an internationally recognized company with deep political connections.
“Unless this catastrophe is handled swiftly and decisively, it will take many years for FIU to live it down,” said former FIU President Modesto Maidique, an MIT-trained engineer whose name is on the campus marred by the collapse of the bridge.
Maidique said the university’s Accelerated Bridge Construction center and its director, Atorod Azizinamini, remain top-notch, but expects they’ll suffer as a result of the accident: “It’s sad that this will reflect poorly on him, although I don’t think he had anything to do with it.”
Marc Sarnoff, an FIU trustee and aviation attorney who once campaigned for Gov. Scott, hopes the university’s reputation won’t suffer during the long wait while the National Transportation Safety Board conducts its investigation.
“I’ve been through 10 major aviation crashes in my life. You’d be surprised what people say happened at first, versus what happened at the end,” said Sarnoff, a former Miami city commissioner. “Let’s let it play out.”
But investigations take time, and finger-pointing began within hours between FDOT and the university. Scott’s transportation authority has insisted it served only as a pass-through for funding on the project, and suggested late Friday that FIU’s engineer of record may have recklessly dismissed the discovery of cracking in the bridge after it was set into place.
FIU responded that its team had notified a state administrator the day of the collapse that its team had discovered cracking. The state university president said Florida transportation officials were, in fact, closely involved with the project.
I feel at this point that everybody will probably end up going in their own direction. I understand that. That's the nature of these kinds of things.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg
Design and construction inspiration came from FIU’s innovative research and technology, educational excellence, and commitment to sustainability.
Excerpt from MCM’s bridge proposal
“We’ve had a good relationship with FDOT — I just want to make it clear,” Rosenberg said Friday during an interview with the Miami Herald. “So we’re anxious to find out more about what they think we didn’t do. Because they’ve been involved at every step.”
Rosenberg, who walked away from a press conference Saturday as reporters shouted questions at him about the bridge, told the Miami Herald that the university relied on the contractors to make day-to-day decisions on the project, including when to request state approval to bypass traffic away from the construction site. “We don’t have operational responsibility for managing that project,” he said. “That belongs to the contractors.”
It’s a precarious dance for Rosenberg and the university, which gets much of its funding from the state. The university has to also be careful about how it handles its relationship with its contractors, including nationally recognized designer Figg Bridge Group and contractor MCM, a prominent and politically connected Miami firm whose president is a member of the dean’s council for the FIU School of Business.
Rosenberg said Friday that he had not spoken to MCM or the private engineers overseeing the structural components since the bridge fell. His explanation hinted at the litigation sure to follow as various parties point fingers and assign blame.
“I feel at this point that everybody will probably end up going in their own direction,” he said. “I understand that. That’s the nature of these kinds of things.”
Miami Herald staff writer Rob Wile and McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Kevin Hall contributed to this report.