It will be interminable months before the who, what, where, when and why — especially the “Why” — of the FIU-Sweetwater bridge collapse are determined.
But this much is clear: State and local construction protocols putting people’s safety first must be rethought, reinvigorated and reinforced. In the ongoing war between safety and convenience, safety lost last week. Six people died tragically, needlessly, because we live in an overbuilt community that loathes traffic jams, yet continually makes them worse; that is sick and tired of negotiating orange traffic cones and detours; that endangers pedestrians trying to cross a river of vehicles — the whole point of the pedestrian bridge that fell; and where time wasted stuck on the road costs money.
Thursday, all the things we hate cost six lives.
Whether the crack cited on the north side of the bridge; or the use of heavy concrete instead of steel; or the adjustments being made to the bridge’s cables; or a design flaw; or a construction error will end up the cause for the collapse, the fact that no one on the design-build team made a request that Tamiami Trail be closed during stress-testing — and the Florida Department of Transportation was not necessarily expecting one — is one huge and obvious lapse.
As all the parties involved jockey to assure the community that they did everything right — which remains to be determined, pending investigations into the bridge failure — FDOT has been too quick to keep its own role at arm’s length: “The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design-build team.”
We ask: Should it have been?
FDOT is the government agency where at least one of the bucks must stop. After all, an engineer with FIGG Bridge Design called FDOT alerting it to a crack on the bridge’s north side. He did not convey a sense of urgency and, perhaps, that was a mistake. Doesn’t matter — no one at FDOT got the voicemail until it was too late. Thursday, all of the major parties met, four hours before the collapse, to discuss the fissures.
Indeed, the design team, including MCM Construction, FIGG Bridge Design and FIU, needs to tell us why traffic was allowed to continue under the bridge during the stress tests and why a request to close the street was not made.
But the fatalities in the bridge collapse make clear that FDOT must be proactive, establishing more stringent rules as to when streets must be closed to traffic, ensuring that the decision is a collaborative one and, as stated earlier, making people’s safety the overarching priority.
The whole point of Accelerated Bridge Construction — ABC — which is how the FIU bridge was being expedited, is to ensure the least interruption to traffic, the fewest street closures possible. This accommodation to drivers’ frustrations must be rethought.
The span was constructed off site, then on March 10, lifted into place atop supports already in place. Of course, traffic was diverted, the street closed.
Not so, though, as it has been disclosed, while workers conducted stress tests on the bridge on Thursday. Traffic was allowed to proceed east and west underneath the bridge. Then, as videos confirm, in the blink of an eye, the bridge was on the ground.
As the slow process to unearth cars under the bridge stretched into the weekend, and grieving families identified loved ones killed, satisfactory answers, unfortunately, will be even slower in coming. In the meantime, FDOT must confront, not run from, its role in preventing such tragedies in the future.