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Cautious new design 5 years after fatal FIU bridge collapse

Pedro Portal
/
Miami Herald

MIAMI (AP) — Five years after the catastrophic collapse of a pedestrian bridge with a novel design meant to punctuate Florida International University’s ascendancy as a public institution, state engineers are finally ready to give it another go.

This time, though, cutting-edge is out. So is FIU, which conceived of the ambitious bridge project a decade ago and oversaw design and construction of the failed structure.

The Florida Department of Transportation, which took direct control of the project from FIU after the collapse, has now unveiled plans for a $20 million, 290-foot-long footbridge over eight lanes of heavy traffic on Southwest Eighth Street.

Like the previous version, the new bridge will link FIU’s main campus to the small, working-class city of Sweetwater and its flourishing University City, a dense cluster of apartment towers with cafes and shops for students, faculty and school staff.

Despite some superficial resemblance to the old bridge, the nearly finished design plans for the new version take a decidedly conservative approach to engineering and construction — an effort clearly intended to reduce to a minimum the risk of a repeat of the shocking calamity that occurred on March 15, 2018.

While still under construction, that bridge’s 950-ton steel-and-concrete main span crumpled onto the roadway below, crushing cars stopped at a red light and killing six people, including an FIU student and a construction worker. Ten others were injured, including a crew member who was permanently disabled.

Federal investigators later determined the likely cause to be a design error. They faulted everyone involved in the project, including FIU, state transportation officials and private contractors, for failing to stop work or close the road after alarmingly broad cracks began spreading along the bridge’s structural supports well before it was finished.

A multitude of lawsuits and countersuits over the collapse have been settled, with victims and their families receiving nearly $103 million in compensation. The bridge’s noted lead design engineer, W. Denney Pate, last year surrendered his Florida engineering license and retired without admitting culpability after state investigators concluded he had been negligent. A criminal investigation by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, meanwhile, remains officially open, but it’s unclear whether it’s active.

FIU President Kenneth Jessell, who helped plan the bridge project in his previous role as the university’s chief financial officer, said he’s looking forward to the start of construction on the new version. FIU retains an advisory role in the project.

New bridge means ‘new hope’ for FIU

“This is the fifth anniversary of the bridge collapse, and it certainly brings up the tragedy of the bridge, but it also brings up new hope in terms of our ability to deliver on our commitment to providing a safe passage across Southwest Eighth Street,” Jessell said in an interview.

“From what we’ve seen, I think the community is very excited about the bridge. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the details. Safety has always been the highest priority of this project. That’s the reason why it was envisioned.”

Unlike the old bridge, a unique design consisting fully of reinforced concrete, the nearly finished blueprint for its replacement, soon to go out for construction bidding, relies on tried-and-tested engineering. A pair of steel girders running the full length of the bridge will provide sturdy, nearly fail-safe support.

And unlike the old main span, built by the side of the road and hoisted into place in one piece under an innovative method designed to speed construction and minimize traffic disruptions, the new bridge will be erected the old-fashioned way: bit by bit, an approach that will require regular road and lane closures over two years of work, starting in about a year.

That safety-above-all goal will mean closures for even minor overhead work, FDOT and consulting design engineers from Miami’s BCC Engineering said as they presented the new plans at a Feb. 28 public meeting in Sweetwater.

But it doesn’t mean the new bridge won’t exhibit some design pizzazz.

Like its failed predecessor, the new span is meant to be more than just a bridge to safely convey people on foot and on bikes over eight lanes of rushing traffic.

Gateway to college town

It’s designed also to stand as a conspicuous new gateway to FIU’s main campus and University City, an initiative that has given the school’s sprawling suburban home what it’s long lacked — ample student housing and a college-town atmosphere — while revitalizing Sweetwater’s formerly depressed and underdeveloped downtown.

To that end, the new bridge reproduces some elements of the old, if not its unusual structural design.

The steel beams of the new bridge will fully support a smooth, poured-concrete walkway topped by a continuous canopy for protection from the elements. Steel cables from leaning twin pylons, 150 feet tall, will help stabilize the bridge and dampen vibrations — though they’re meant mostly for looks, not to support the bridge’s weight. The mast, cables and bridge will be brightly illuminated after dark.

Elevator towers and sweeping ramps and stairways will rise from ground-level plazas at each end of the bridge, which will also function as a hangout and be equipped with Wi-Fi, concessions and a suite of electronic security features. The bridge section over the canal that separates University City and Southwest Eighth, also known as the Tamiami Trail, will be wider than the main span to accommodate seating and special events.

“This bridge will be a signature bridge,” said Daniel Raymat, an engineer with bridge designers BCC, during the 30-minute public presentation in February.

Other details could not be immediately ascertained. A spokeswoman for FDOT’s District Six office, which covers Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, declined a request from the Miami Herald for an interview with a project engineer.

“We don’t have anyone available to speak with you,” FDOT district spokeswoman Tish Burgher said in an email.

Once the bridge is finished, FIU will own, manage and maintain it. Maintenance costs, estimated at $60,000 annually, will be split between FIU and Sweetwater, Jessell said.

Is new bridge necessary?

Some skeptics have questioned whether the expensive new bridge, funded mostly with federal and state transportation grants, is really necessary. Some road planners say the Southwest Eighth crossing at 109th Avenue, where the bridge would go, can be made much safer with an improved design at a far lesser cost.

In proposing the original bridge, FIU pointed to the death of a student struck by a car while crossing the road. It’s hard to say how dangerous the crossing is, in part because crash statistics are hard to come by for that specific intersection. FIU says it doesn’t have numbers, and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said it tracks crash data only at county level. The Florida Highway Patrol didn’t immediately respond to a request for information.

But Jessell, FIU’s leader, said he has no doubt the bridge is needed because students have been among those struck and injured or killed while crossing the intersection.

“There have been deaths of students,” he said. “The most recent was just a couple of years ago.”

Jessell hopes the bridge’s appealing design will encourage pedestrians and cyclists to use it.

“It’s attractive. We have plazas. We’ll be selling water and snacks. There will be Wi-Fi. It will be covered. It’ll be an inviting place to cross,” he said. “There will be lighting. Like for the Fourth of July, we could have red, white and blue.”

Street crossing not safe

FIU sophomore Freddy Gonzales, interviewed on a recent afternoon while he waited to cross Southwest Eighth, said he would prefer to use a bridge if one were available to walk between campus and his University City apartment. It takes too long for the crossing light to change, and it doesn’t feel safe, he said. Recently, he noticed pieces of a broken car headlight scattered at the corner.

“That’s something you don’t want to see in a corner you’re standing in. I usually stand behind the pole now to stay safe,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said he realized he was living close to the site of the 2018 tragedy, only when an uncle dropped him off at his apartment building, The One, and remarked on the fact.

“He said, ‘Isn’t that where the bridge used to be?’ And that’s when I remembered how bad it was,” said Gonzales, who lived in California but said his memory of the collapse is vivid because he was visiting family in South Florida when it happened.

FDOT and its consultants plan to remove the existing marked crosswalks on Southwest Eighth once the bridge is finished, though it’s unclear whether cyclists and pedestrians will be blocked or prohibited from crossing at street level.

In the five years since the collapse, meanwhile, the cost of construction and materials such as steel and concrete has risen sharply. Hard construction costs for the new bridge amount to $18.2 million, according to the February presentation by FDOT and engineering firm BCC. That figure represents a substantial increase over the initial $16 million estimate and the nearly $14 million construction budget for the first bridge.

But the Sweetwater official responsible for the execution of the University City plan since the mid-2000s said the bridge is essential to ensuring the safety of the thousands of new residents who will be crossing between the city’s rapidly redeveloping downtown and FIU.

“It’s imperative,” said Robert Herrada, Sweetwater assistant city manager and chief of staff to its mayor. “Safety is paramount. That is ideally achieved by a bridge.”

University City had its genesis in a realization that FIU and Sweetwater could benefit mutually from redevelopment of Sweetwater’s deteriorating, low-density downtown to provide badly needed housing for students and others affiliated with the university, Herrada said.

A special new zoning district was created to lure developers, though it took several years for the first private student housing to be built, he said. Increasing applications for new construction eventually made it apparent a bridge would be needed. To live in the new apartments, tenants must certify they are connected with FIU, as students, faculty or staff.

‘A revived district’

Today, six towers with a total of about 4,000 apartment bedrooms have been finished or are under construction at the bustling new district, Herrada said, with at least one more in the planning pipeline. The ground floors at the towers are quickly filling with new cafes and restaurants, including an Indian spot, a gourmet burger joint and soon-to-open high-end pizza and sushi places.

“It would have been hard to believe 20 years ago, but we now have all of those, and they are slammin,’” Herrada said. “The economic impact of this project is already profound. It’s revived a district that was decaying and dormant. It’s been transformative.“

He said it’s not just students or professors who would be using the bridge, but also Sweetwater residents who walk to jobs as administrative or support staff at the university.

The proposed bridge has been integral to the plans of University City developers.

Brian Pearl, a principal in Miami’s Global City Development, said his firm’s fully occupied The One luxury student housing tower, which opened in 2020 with 1,244 bedrooms arranged in suites or as studios, was designed to work with the bridge, which will land at its doorstep. A companion building that Global City is developing with Pennsylvania-based builder Toll Brothers called Lapis, with 1,086 beds, is almost finished and will open in August, he said.

Just west of that, Pearl said, a New York developer has another tower, with 1,200 beds, well underway.

The new district’s vibrancy and success, he said, will depend significantly on the easy walking or cycling connection with FIU that the bridge would provide.

“It’s wonderful that the bridge is being revived,” Pearl said. “It was conceived to play a part in that advancement of the city, and in close coordination with the university. We’re trying to create a real great vibe and a good mix of people and retail on the streets.

“There is a huge amount of demand. It’s attracting more students because of the lifestyle. People want to get together with friends within walking distance. I think it’s a true college experience.”

The One eventually will bring yet another benefit to FIU, Pearl said. It was financed with federally approved bonds that provide tax benefits to investors. The complex will be owned by FIU, at no cost to the university, once they’re paid off in 36 years. Because public university property pays no property taxes, the developer made a large upfront payment to Sweetwater to make up for that.

“It was a win-win,” Pearl said.

The One started construction just after the original bridge fell, a tragedy Pearl called “horrific.”

Aside from its role in making street crossing safer and catalyzing development, the original bridge project was also supposed to highlight a singular success for FIU’s engineering school. The department played a key role in the development of Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC, a now widely accepted approach in which bridge spans are constructed on site and then lifted into place with giant transporter machines. That means the road below has to be closed only briefly while the span is lifted and secured, a matter of a day or so.

In successfully bidding for the FIU project, Miami contractor Munilla Construction Management, or MCM, and its chosen bridge engineering consultant, FIGG Bridge Group of Tallahassee, proposed using that accelerated technique and an unorthodox structural design meant to take full advantage of it.

FIGG’s lead bridge designer, Pate, secured approval for a variation on a traditional truss bridge — usually supported by weblike railings on both sides — that called for only a single line of supports along the middle. That not only allowed for a broad, open walking surface, but also a uniquely dramatic look, with zigzagging columns running along the center and supporting a rounded canopy. Like the new bridge, Pate’s design also called for a central pylon and cables, but those were purely for show.

Investigators later determined that the ABC technique played no direct role in the bridge’s collapse.

Design flaw doomed bridge

In fact, independent engineers who reviewed the design plans concluded that the novel structure would have held up fine, if Pate had not made a fatal mistake in the design of a single support joint. That defective joint gave way at midday as work crews were engaged in an ill-conceived attempt to repair deep concrete cracks that had spread along it at the north end of the unfinished bridge.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a lengthy technical report, determined that in designing the bridge Pate had miscalculated the forces the joint would need to resist. As a consequence, his construction design didn’t provide enough structural strength at the connection.

A firm hired by FIGG to review the plans, New Jersey-based Louis Berger, missed the obvious error because it accepted a contract of limited scope to save money, the NTSB said. Pate also failed to note clearly in his plans that the ends of the beams meeting at the joint required roughening to create friction to further strengthen the connection — something that the contractors as a result appear not to have done.

When alarmingly deep cracks began appearing in the bridge deck after it was lifted into place onto support columns, inspectors and crews raised alarms and sent FIGG photos and reports. Pate, unaware of the design error, downplayed their significance, even though he acknowledged at the time that he didn’t know what was causing them.

In a morning meeting the day of the 1:47 p.m. collapse on March 15, 2018, Pate dismissed an inspecting engineer’s suggestion that the bridge be shored up as a precaution — something that would have required a long lane or road closure — and came up with a repair plan for the cracks that called for tightening the joint. No one at the meeting, which comprised a dozen engineers and consultants, suggested closing the road during the repair work.

Texas officials fire lead designer of failed FIU bridge

Pate then boarded a flight out of Miami as crews went to work. Instead of closing the cracks, though, the repair work overstressed the already failing structural joint, causing it to buckle and the entire bridge span to come crashing down.

Since then, concerns with Pate designs surfaced in two other bridges in Texas. FIGG was fired by that state department of transportation from major bridge projects in Corpus Christi and Houston. Construction on a FIGG design for the Houston Ship Channel Bridge was halted after a review uncovered 21 “significant concerns.” Portions of the bridge structure had to be demolished, setting back the project two years and adding nearly $300 million to its cost.

Last March, FIU dedicated a memorial on campus to honor the victims: a 7-foot bronze sculpture of Alexa Duran, the 18-year-old student killed, and five lamp posts surrounding it to represent the five other people who died. They were Alberto Arias, 53; Brandon Brownfield, 39; Rolando Fraga, 60, and his partner, Oswaldo Gonzalez, 57; and construction worker Navaro Brown, 37.

FDOT installed a bronze plaque at the corner of Southwest Eighth and 109th Avenue in front of FIU’s Nicklaus Children’s Ambulatory Surgery Center and Red Parking Garage. The plaque will be moved to the new bridge once it’s finished. It lists the names of those killed with individual messages about each person.

Atop the plaque, it reads: “You will always be remembered.”

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