Lee Roy Selmon was one of the finest Buccaneers in Tampa Bay football history. The bridge that carries his name, however, has had some trouble mastering an anchor system. The problem, soft soil underneath pier foundations, has since been fixed, but the fallout is hitting those involved like a cannonball.
The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has filed a complaint with the 13th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida against URS Corp. Southern Inc., URS Holdings Inc. and Figg Engineering Group pertaining to the pier sinkage on the elevated Lee Roy Selmon Expressway back in April 2004. The authority is seeking $120 million in damages.
According to the complaint, URS Southern is taking the brunt of the blow. Back in July of 2000 it agreed to serve as construction manager and to provide resident engineering and construction engineering and inspection services for the reversible-lanes bridge.
“They were the bride in every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,” John Vento, the authority’s chief special litigation counsel, told Roads & Bridges. “They were the geotech; they were the foundation designers; they were the CEI; they were the general engineering consultant; and they were the construction managers. They were everything, and they had several chances along the way to catch the problem.”
URS did not want to comment on any matter currently in litigation. Figg said it did not provide geotechnical engineering on the job and maintains no responsibility for what went wrong. Figg was named in the dispute because URS was a pass-through subconsultant to Figg on a small portion of the project. The project turned catastrophic on April 13, 2004, when Pier 97 fell 11 ft into the ground causing two spans of the reversible-lanes bridge to sink. Further investigation in July revealed that Pier 99 dipped as much as 1.3 in. and Pier 4 moved approximately 3?4 in. Pier 10 was subjected to a dynamic load test and was found to be deficient in axial resistance by “a substantial margin.”
The complaint filed by the authority revealed a couple of memos that pointed to a problem with the soil conditions long before the collapse occurred. The first note, dated in March of 2002, recognized a significant variability in the soil conditions at grade. Upon hearing the news the authority approved additional testing. URS Southern and URS Holdings executed eight Osterberg (O-Cell) load tests, which were performed on non-production location drilled shafts. Inspectors were trying to evaluate the side shear and end-bearing resistances provided by the underlying soil and rock at the site. A second memo on Aug. 26, 2003, recognized significant variability in the soil conditions, stating, “In the weathered limestone, which provides the majority of the load resistance, significant variations in side shear resistance were obtained from the load tests.”
The complaint states URS Southern and URS Holdings did not correctly correlate the load test results to geotechnical properties of the soils in a way that the load test could be correlated to the anticipated performance at the pier location. Instead, according to the complaint, some of the borings were 50 ft from the foundation.
“They didn’t even bother to do a test hole at each foundation location,” said Vento. “They had no earthly idea what the soil characteristics were underneath the foundations that they designed or how deep they should go because they didn’t bother to test at those locations. They did eight tests and extrapolated from those tests. They ignored their own soil reports that said the soils were highly variable throughout the site.”
If the case goes to trial it might not be heard until 2008. URS has expressed the desire for an out-of-court settlement. A mediation session was scheduled in October before URS backed out. Vento said the next one could happen before February 2006.
“I would’ve thought this case would have resolved itself by now,” said Vento. “The bridge fell down. I mean, let’s go back to the basic problem: The bridge fell down. There was no earthquake, it was built according to plan and there were no sinkholes.”
In the meantime the authority is trying to work out of a negative publicity hole. According to Vento the bridge is now secure and the authority expects cars on it in July 2006. Part of the damages sought in the lawsuit is stigma damages for loss of revenue resulting from negative publicity for the safety of the road.
“When it doesn’t fall down again that [negative publicity] will diminish over time. It isn’t going to fall down a second time, I assure you that,” said Vento.