Why wasn’t road closed during pedestrian bridge installation? No one will say

Witness recounts the moments after the bridge collapsed: "It could have easily been me"

Alex Murga, a grant administrator, has been taking the road under the Florida International University bridge for 10 years. He recalls the moments after the bridge collapsed on Thursday.
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Alex Murga, a grant administrator, has been taking the road under the Florida International University bridge for 10 years. He recalls the moments after the bridge collapsed on Thursday.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s bridge collapse onto busy Tamiami Trail near Florida International University, many are asking why traffic was still flowing while a 950-ton piece of concrete was being tested overhead.

Friday night, the Florida Department of Transportation issued a statement saying no request had been made to close the street since last weekend, when the span was moved into place. Nor was it alerted by the FIU design build team that any “stress testing” was planned.

“Per standard safety procedure, FDOT would issue a permit for partial or full road closure if deemed necessary and requested by the FIU design build team or FIU contracted construction inspector for structural testing,” the statement read.

Tamiami Trail — also known as Southwest Eighth Street and U.S. 41 — falls under the jurisdiction of both the state and federal government. But most on-the-ground management falls to the Florida Department of Transportation, according to a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, who said his agency was not involved in discussions about leaving the road open.

In a preliminary fact sheet on the collapse, FDOT said FIU was in charge of the project. FDOT said its role was limited to “issuing a permit for traffic control during installation of the structure” on March 10.

When asked during a Friday night press conference about whether the road should have been closed, Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said his agency would be reviewing the situation. “We want to look at how the contractor identified risk and how they planned to mitigate risk. We want to understand what decisions were made and why they were made.”

The importance of keeping traffic moving during the project’s construction was underscored in a 2014 email, obtained by the Miami Herald, from Thomas Gustafson, then-director of research programs at FIU, to Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s CFO.

“There are elements at FDOT that will oppose lane closing at all costs,” Gustafson wrote. He went on to outline three basic project goals:

“1) FIU’s desire to have a signature bridge

2) Sweetwater’s desire to have a safe crossing and meaningful Memorial Plaza, and

3) FDOT’s desire to minimize crossing obstacles to a free flowing US 41.”

Gustafson did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Jessell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Project managers eventually decided on using accelerated bridge construction, an increasingly popular method in which components are built nearby and then moved into place as a unit. A common reason to use ABC is to reduce traffic impacts, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s webpage for the method.

“That’s the driver and why ABC is so popular, because it allows you to keep the road open,” Ralph Verrastro, a Cornell-trained engineer and principal of Naples-based Bridging Solutions, which is not involved in the FIU project, told the Herald Thursday. “It’s more expensive to do, but it gains the advantage of keeping traffic moving, and that’s what makes the phone ring at the mayor’s office.”

A section of the busy roadway, which carries as many as 66,500 cars on a busy day, was closed from 9 p.m. Friday, March 9, through the weekend, as the bridge’s 174-foot span was lowered onto pillars on either side of the road.

By daybreak Monday, the road had reopened, and remained so until Thursday’s tragedy, when at least six were killed.

This story has been updated to reflect statements from FDOT and the NTSB.

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