Miami-Dade County

How big a role did state play in FIU bridge? Gov. Scott denies any, but records cast doubt

As Gov. Rick Scott seeks election to the U.S. Senate, the Florida Department of Transportation has consistently distanced the state from a fatal bridge collapse outside Miami — but its explanations have been contradicted as more information becomes public.

The governor’s administration has said its role in the Florida International University bridge, which collapsed March 15, was limited to issuing traffic permits, conducting a “routine preliminary review” and acting as a “pass-through” for federal funding. It also said an FDOT engineer was unable to listen to a voice message describing cracks that were forming at the structure’s north end because he was out of the office on assignment. The message was left by one of the bridge’s private contractors two days before the newly built span fell onto Southwest Eighth Street, killing six people.

In fact, the FDOT engineer, Thomas Andres, was present in the office on March 15, according to a copy of his calendar obtained by the Miami Herald through a public-records request and first reported by television station NBC6.

And nearly two years before the collapse, that same engineer expressed concerns in writing to the bridge’s design-build team that its design left it vulnerable to cracking, NBC6 also reported. Andres’ deep familiarity with the plans suggests the state played a far more significant role than it has so far acknowledged.

FDOT did not respond to questions about discrepancies surrounding its role in the project. But the agency still maintains that Andres did not listen to the message, which downplayed the severity of the cracks, until the day after the bridge collapsed.

Shortly after the accident, top FIU officials exchanged internal emails criticizing FDOT for providing the public with what they termed “misinformation.”

McKinley Lewis, the governor’s deputy communications director, said Scott had in no way directed FDOT to minimize its role.

“The Miami Herald’s obsession with picking apart the timing of a voicemail left on an employee’s landline that communicated no life-safety issues, and that was publicly released immediately after it was discovered, is completely ludicrous,” Lewis said. “None of this changes the fact that the design-build team is responsible for the safety of their project, including whether or not to recommend closure of the roads at the project site.”

Scott’s office has not yet fulfilled a Sept. 25 public records request from the Herald for communications between his staff and FDOT concerning the bridge.

Mike Dew, FDOT’s head since 2017, is a longtime Scott staffer who, among other roles, previously served as the governor’s director of external affairs.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson has raised the state’s involvement in the disastrous $14.2 million project during the Senate campaign.

Nelson has called for the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the accident, to stop blocking the release of public records, including minutes from a meeting held to discuss the cracks the morning the bridge collapsed. An FDOT consultant was present at the meeting. The records, which the Herald unsuccessfully sued to have released, could explain who decided to keep the road under the bridge open to motorists as the cracks grew alarmingly in size.

“The victims’ families and the public need to know what steps regulators did or did not take to ensure the safe construction of the FIU pedestrian bridge,” Nelson wrote in an August letter to the NTSB’s chairman. Nelson’s Senate staff announced the letter in a news release, which noted that “state officials have repeatedly tried to distance themselves from any responsibility for the bridge.”

Bill-Nelson
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat being challenged by Rick Scott, has called on the National Transportation Safety Board to allow the release of records pertaining to the collapse of the Florida International University bridge.

Nelson did not bring up the bridge in a debate against Scott earlier this month, but that was before the latest revelations concerning Andres. Another debate was scheduled to be nationally televised on Oct. 16 but was postponed by Hurricane Michael and then canceled as the campaigns were unable to agree on a new date. The election is set for Nov. 6. Polls show a tight race in the nation’s most-expensive Senate race. Democrats need to hold onto the seat to maintain any hope of taking control of the chamber.

“When people die like this, it can become a political issue,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida. “Anything and everything is fair game in an election year.”

Lauren Schenone, press secretary for Scott’s campaign, said the governor was “committed to doing everything possible to make sure families are provided the answers they deserve and that those responsible are held accountable.”

Added Schenone: “As much as Senator Bill Nelson tries to turn this tragedy and the loss of innocent life into a political issue, it isn’t.”

Backtrack

Scott has clearly stated that he believes the project — designed to connect FIU’s campus to the neighboring town of Sweetwater across a busy state road that posed hazards to pedestrians — belonged to the university.

“It’s not an FDOT project. It’s an FIU project,” Scott said during a news conference at the university the night the bridge fell. At the same time, FDOT released a fact-sheet highlighting its “limited” role.

That fact-sheet seems to have understated the role of the agency, which actually played an important part in the project.

Among its duties: Serving on the selection committee that chose Munilla Construction Management and FIGG Bridge Engineers as the design-build team. Helping select the consulting engineering firm, Bolton Perez & Associates, hired to make sure the plans were carried out safely. Attending frequent meetings and providing input on the bridge’s design and location. Consulting on dozens of details, including the proper concrete mix.

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An aerial photo shows the fallen Florida International University bridge. It had developed cracks in the days before the collapse, which occurred on March 15, 2018. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

And its engineers were intimately aware of the bridge’s design.

On March 25, 2016, FDOT engineers Andres wrote of the bridge’s preliminary design plans that “maintaining stress limits throughout all intermittent phases to avoid cracking of the members will be extremely tricky,” according to records uncovered by NBC6 and later obtained by the Herald.

A FIGG engineer replied at the time that “it is our understanding that [FDOT’s] comments were provided for information only and no response is required at this time.” Andres accepted that response and it’s not clear how his concerns were ultimately addressed.

Independent engineers consulted by the Herald after the collapse said the bridge’s design appeared flawed and left it vulnerable to cracking — and that gaping cracks that appeared in a key support structure, or member, after the bridge was raised into the air on March 10 may have signaled the span was unsound.

The day after the bridge collapsed, FDOT released another statement acknowledging that FIGG engineer W. Denney Pate called Andres on Tuesday — two days before the collapse — and left a voice message saying cracks had appeared in the bridge. Pate’s message claimed the cracks did not threaten its structural integrity.

“This voicemail was left on a landline and not heard by an FDOT employee until Friday, March 16 as the employee was out of the office on assignment,” FDOT’s statement said. “When the employee returned to his office today, Friday, March 16, he was able to listen to the voicemail.”

FDOT now acknowledges Andres returned from an assignment in Pensacola on Thursday, the day of the collapse, not Friday. He attended meetings in the morning, according to FDOT spokesman Tom Yu, before the bridge collapsed at 1:47 p.m. Andres did not discover the voice mail until Friday, Yu said.

FDOT employees have the ability to listen to voice messages even when they are out of the office, the agency confirmed. It’s not clear why Andres did not listen to the message remotely.

Andres has a state-issued cell phone and Pate could have also left a message there, Yu added.

FDOT said it did not mean to provide misleading information with its initial statement. “We could have worded it better,” FDOT communications director Ed Seifert told NBC6.

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A measuring stick shows the depth of a crack in the deck of the doomed FIU bridge. This photo was dated March 13, 2018, two days before the bridge collapsed, killing six. Munilla Construction Management Provided by National Transportation Safety Board

Meanwhile, FIU officials expressed shock both publicly and privately at the state’s attempts to absolve itself of liability after the collapse.

“We’ve had a good relationship with FDOT — I just want to make it clear,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said at the time. “So we’re anxious to find out more about what they think we didn’t do. Because they’ve been involved at every step.”

Top FIU employees used less guarded language in emails among themselves, which were obtained by the Herald through a public records request.

“This is so not accurate and we were shocked when we received” FDOT’s fact sheet, wrote Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s chief financial officer, on the evening the bridge fell. “FDOT was involved every step of the way.”

John Cal, FIU’s associate vice president for facilities management, wrote of the need to “counter [the state’s] misstatements and misinformation.”

“Fake news!” he wrote.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas
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