Miami-Dade County Commissioners on Tuesday approved emergency repairs for a potential crisis first flagged seven years ago, when engineers warned the county that concrete barriers on the elevated rail system were falling down and endangering pedestrians and passengers.
A 2012 report from the Atkins engineering firm first detailed problems with the hollow acoustical walls that were constructed when Metrorail launched in the 1980s. Atkins engineers said “failure of these panels may occur during a Category 1 hurricane or an extremely strong microburst weather event.” The report said it was “imperative to either replace or strengthen these panels in a reasonable period of time to maintain the safety of the traveling public.”
“We’re talking in terms of slabs of concrete that could literally fall and kill somebody,” Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said Tuesday.
While Miami-Dade did remove hundreds of the panels in 2012, thousands more remained untouched. Two major failures disabled trains during the last 12 months, and a new warning from Atkins pointed out falling concrete could hurt pedestrians. The failing walls also endanger Metrorail passengers, engineers warned. The 2018 updated report by Atkins stated if a barrier collapses onto the track, “a fast-moving train can strike these panels causing a catastrophic derailment.”
In 2012, Atkins recommended cracked barriers be removed immediately, and that the county come up with a plan for reinforcing other panels that don’t look damaged. But the report also suggested temporary repairs might not be enough, saying the county should “further evaluate the risks” of keeping those remaining panels in place.
Miami-Dade did remove the weakest of the panels in 2012, dismantling hundreds of them, according to the Transit agency. The work largely paused after that, though Transit Director Alice Bravo said the agency would remove barriers that were cracked and visibly failing.
The urgency returned last summer, when a barrier collapsed and was struck by a train near the Vizcaya station. The July 3 incident damaged the train and upended the Metrorail system, with announced 30-minute delays shortly after 1 p.m. that Tuesday.
The transit agency declared an emergency in July to allow an accelerated contracting process to remove the walls. Karla Damian, a transit spokeswoman, said the notice to proceed for the emergency repair work was issued in February, and that the $2.8 million project started in April. That would have been roughly the same time of another severe wall failure disabling a train.
A memo from Transit summarizing the background of the contract to remove walls vulnerable to high winds only cites an April failure. On April 19, Metrorail blamed morning rush-hour delays on trains hitting debris blown onto tracks by strong winds.
Tuesday’s approval authorizes two more contracts for repairs totaling $4.5 million, with the county paying to accelerate the work so that it’s done by December. Alice Bravo, the county’s transit director, said the situation will only get worse as the panels continue to age. “The failure rates have accelerated,” she said.
The Transit memo warns the county can’t reliably predict which walls needs attention first. When Atkins investigated the July collapse, the firm concluded “failures of these panels is difficult to predict and can be sudden.”
“It is important to note,” read the Transit memo, that these “acoustical barriers will continue to fall imminently and without any particular pattern.”
Even so, Bravo said her agency’s employees and contractors have been able to see which panels look to be most at risk and tackle them first. “We are prioritizing and addressing anything before it becomes a safety issue,” she said.
A July 13 memo by Glenn Myers, a senior engineer with Atkins, said that some pieces of concrete from the failure near the Vizcaya station did fall from the track and onto the “M Path” below, the walking area being transformed into a linear park called The Underline.
“Many of these panels are suspended over public walkways and roadways, and these concrete projectiles can be a danger to the public,” Myers wrote.
He wrote that the panels should be removed “as quickly as possible,” and noted the 2013 recommendations were based on the idea that Miami-Dade would approve replace the barriers “in the immediate future.”
“It is now 2018,” Myers wrote, “and this replacement contract has not been implemented.”
Audrey Edmonson, chairwoman of the county commission, pressed Bravo for an explanation on the years of delay after the 2012 Atkins report. Bravo, who joined the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2015, said the county had been addressing the most damaged walls but had not pursued a full removal until after the 2018 incident.
“We were warned about this in 2012, seven years ago. If anything happens now, I think we’re going to be in a really bad position,” Edmonson said. “Because we were warned.”
Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.