Wednesday, March 13, 2013

WSDOT Examines SR 520 Bridge Project, and it's not pretty

The Washington State Department of Transportation recently published a report on the SR 520 bridge pontoon project, and the results of the report show a project that has the hallmarks of a poorly executed approach.  The facts noted in this post are from the report.  Simply because I live on an island in the Seattle area and rely on a floating bridge on a daily basis doesn't make me an expert on the topic, although I do feel the repercussions every time the other (520) bridge is closed and the traffic on my side dramatically increases.  ENR just published a very helpful article about the report.

SR 520 is one of two floating bridges across Lake Washington, connecting the highly populated east and west sides of the area.  It is a vital transportation through way.   The bridge is scheduled to be completely replaced; however, WSDOT recognized the need to produce pontoons that could be used in the eventual replacement as quickly as possible so that when the bridge fails (note I said "when", not "if"), it can be replaced immediately.  Note to self:  avoid driving on the SR 520 bridge.   According to the report, WSDOT didn't seem to be able to make up its mind regarding the actual delivery method it wanted.  Because the critical factor was timing, WSDOT engineers provided two possible options for the proposers on this design-build project:  The first option was to propose on the project using the 70-80% completed drawings by WSDOT.  The second option was to completely design and build the pontoons. 

Not surprisingly, the proposal prices for the first option were substantially lower and the schedule for producing the pontoons was substantially faster.  Therefore, WSDOT contracted with the design-builder on drawings that were almost complete.  Because they were almost complete, WSDOT wasresponsible for any problems associated with those drawings.  I'm not an engineer, but it seems to me that the last 20 to 30% of any drawing production is when the all those pesky faults are found.  Again, not surprisingly, there were a number of problems found with WSDOT's design.  However, the report notes that the parties made two huge mistakes.  First, they didn't clearly understand which party was responsible for the problems in the drawings.  Second, they didn't appear to have collaborative communication regarding the problems.  Reviews and approvals of changes by WSDOT were lagging.  Change orders were not issued when they needed to be.  Therefore, not only was the front end procurement odd, the implementation of the project was extremely problematic.

What can we learn from this report? 

1.  Owners are responsible for design/prescriptive specs.  It may be tempting to fully design a project and then expect someone else to take responsibility for the design, but it is usually the most costly way to procure a project.  Risk equals money.  The initial proposals for the project will be lower, but unless the owner is very sure its prescriptive designs are rock solid, the owner should expect to see a number of RFIs and change order. 

2.  Prescriptive designs that are 70 to 80% complete are always going to have substantial holes.  I'm going to estimate those holes in the range of 20 to 30%.  Yes, the design-builders have a better idea of what they are pricing, but the owners are on the hook for problems with an incomplete design, and there are ALWAYS problems with an incomplete design.

3.  If circumstances require substantial prescriptive specifications, manage the project closely.   Projects with substantial bridging documents require more, not less management from the owner.  The owner needs to be quickly responsive to RFIs and the design-builder needs to provide more information regarding the pricing and schedule implications of those changes.

4.  Quit being in such an all fired hurry.  OK, I get that a bridge may fall down, but don't let time pressure dictate an unfortunate procurement.