The Florida Department of Transportation took time out this week to address the many questions and concerns that have arisen following news of cracks in the concrete of the new Pensacola Bay Bridge.
“The number one priority of DOT is the safety of the traveling public and the construction personnel on this project,” said Jared Perdue, District Three director of transportation for F-DOT in an effort to reassure local residents. “At any time FDOT feels the safety of the traveling public could be compromised, the public would be immediately notified and the area closed until we are confident the situation is safe.”
Perdue’s response comes about a week after news that inspectors identified cracks in newly placed concrete on the $400 million Pensacola Bay Bridge Replacement Project, the largest ever transportation project in Northwest Florida. He reiterated that such cracks are common, but must be dealt with as spelled out in specific guidelines developed by DOT through years of accumulated knowledge and experience.
“The cracks that were identified were of a nature that created a necessity to evaluate the placement means and methods of the concrete and that’s why we have such a rigorous inspection program,” said Perdue pointing out that every time concrete is placed an inspection of cracks is conducted to determine their type, size and number.
So far this year, DOT’s Construction, Engineering and Inspections or CEI team forced contractor Skanska USA to halt concrete placement operations on two occasions.
In April, Skanska brought in an expert to help review concrete mix and pouring methods and come up with a DOT-approved remedy that cleared the way for that part of the construction project to continue.
Inspections revealed more cracks in late June, during the 7-day wet-cure process for newly poured concrete decks.
“After the cure period was done, we pulled the blankets back and started evaluating the type of cracks, which are autogenous shrinkage cracks,” said Brett Pielstick, a concrete expert, who serves as the senior project engineer on the Bay Bridge Replacement and works with the C-E-I team that oversees the construction process. At this point, nine concrete spans under currently under review.
“Of those, six of them we’ve completed the overall crack assessments,” Pielstick said. “So, we have an area of 8,862 square feet per span, and of those 9 spans one has only 26 cracks in that whole area, which isn’t a whole lot.”
However, the number of cracks in other spans ranged from 300 to 1300, for an overall total in the thousands. The cracks are small, on average about the width of a credit card, from 3 to 18 inches long, and one half to 3-quarters on an inch deep. According to Pielstick, they do not affect the integrity of the bridge structure.
“There’s a process that Florida does on all their bridge decks now and that is they mill out a half inch and make it so it’s a very smooth riding deck,” said Pielstick adding that the new bay bridge is a very redundant structure. “We have multiple beams underneath it; it’s also supported by deck pans. And, so these aren’t structural cracks, these are superficial cracks and 90-80 percent of them will be removed when we mill that half inch out.”
As of Tuesday, none of the cracks had been milled or repaired and DOT was withholding payments totaling more than $600,000 until the latest crack issues are resolved.
However, questions lingered about whether the contractor, Skanska, may have been rushing construction to secure a $15 million bonus by finishing the first section of the bridge by early next year.
That notion was dismissed.
“It’s important to understand that something like a no-excuse bonus sets a milestone to get to that place, but the rigorous inspection program and specifications that we have to govern this project stay in effect,” declared director of transportation Jared Perdue. “So there’s really no opportunities for that type of activity as far as referring to cutting corners and loopholes and that nature.”
As for why local officials weren’t notified, DOT has maintained that the cracks and resulting work stoppages are pretty routine and posed no danger to the public.
“We typically do not get into the weeds on these sorts of issues. I don’t think there was any nefarious intent,” said Jeff Bergosh, who is chairman of the Escambia County Commission and now serves as chair of the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization (TPO).
“I do have confidence that had they found anything structurally deficient with these cracks that they would have shut it down and forced them to fix it,” Bergosh said. “There’s just too much at stake, too much money, the risk to the population.”
As with many local residents, Bergosh’s concerns are heightened by the March collapse of a newly erected pedestrian bridge in Miami, where six people died; and the recent collapse of two concrete deck spans on the Molino Bridge Project in North Escambia County.
Coincidentally, like most people, Bergosh found out about the cracks in the bay bridge through media reports. He wasn’t alarmed about the notification issue, but believes it is worth some review.
“When we have our next (TPO) meeting, I believe that will be a subject of discussion,” he said. “Perhaps some of the large projects if there’re significant work stoppages; I don’t think it will be a bad idea for that information to flow to us. I’ll just put it that way.”
The next meeting of the Florida-Alabama TPO is Wednesday, Aug. 8 (correction) at the West Florida Regional Library, 239 N Spring St., downtown Pensacola.