FDOT needs to come clean about the role it played in the FIU bridge construction

Six people died when the FIU pedestrian bridge, still under construction, collapsed on March 15, 2018.
Six people died when the FIU pedestrian bridge, still under construction, collapsed on March 15, 2018. Getty Images

The collapse of the bridge at Florida International University a year ago was a tragedy foretold.

Six people were killed, eight were injured. A year after the collapse, grieving families have few answers. Neither does the rest of the public, even though government agencies were supposed to working on its behalf. The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate. The bridge’s construction company, Munilla Construction Management, recently filed for bankruptcy. A tangle of lawsuits must be sorted out.

Who’s to blame for the bridge’s collapse onto Southwest Eighth Street? That has yet to be determined, and families’ anguish continues.

Construction workers noticed the cracks in the structure, both thin and gaping. At least one was concerned enough to take photographs and send them to those in charge.

But instead of acting with an overabundance of caution, there appeared to be an overabundance of confidence on the part of FIGG, which designed the bridge, Munilla Construction Management, the bridge’s construction firm, and a representative from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Representatives of those three entities met with those from FIU on the morning of March 15, 2018. Just before 2 p.m. that day, the bridge collapsed. At the time, workers were on the bridge, tightening support rods, possibly to close the cracks.

But FDOT, from the beginning was focused on traffic, approving a “quick-build” technique to maintain the flow of cars. And though alerted to the cracks, it never closed Eighth Street to traffic once the span was in place overhead.

Preliminary reports ruled out a failure of concrete or construction, pointing to design flaws, instead. However, FDOT should come in for extra scrutiny, too. The department initially sought to distance itself from the project, saying that it only conducted a “routine preliminary review.”

It turns out that FDOT was far more involved. As reported by an NBC6 investigation last year, in March 2016 — two years before the bridge fell — an FDOT engineer raised a number of concerns about the design that the department wanted addressed. Among the engineer’s worries? The potential for cracking.

According to meeting documents, bridge designers pushed back, downplaying the concern. The FDOT engineer also brought up the possibility of excessive forces — shear — coming into play at the north end of the bridge. Again, designers countered that it was not a problem.

When the bridge fell, engineers say that the failure occurred in the same area cited by the FDOT engineer months before, and that shear was the cause.

Two days before the bridge collapsed, a FIGG engineer left a voice message with FDOT allaying any fears that the cracks were a safety threat, “Although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that.”

An FDOT spokesman said no one at the department heard the message until after the bridge fell.

The gap between between what emails and other records show and FDOT’s arm’s-length response after the collapse is disturbing. As a Herald story noted last year, with then-Gov. Rick Scott running for the Senate, any perceived state misstep could have done damage to his campaign.

NTSB’s investigation likely won’t be finished before fall. But the state should compel FDOT to make clear what it knew, and when, about FIU’s bridge. Six people died when it fell. There should be no equivocation about FDOT’s role.