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‘Mistakes' added $20M, 2 years to state bridge project

The state is taking responsibility for a mistake that doubled the duration of a massive bridge repair project and added nearly $20 million to the cost, but a member of the state’s construction oversight team claims the contractor got paid extra to fix a problem of its own making.

ST. CHARLES PARISH, La. -- The state is taking responsibility for a mistake that doubled the duration of a massive bridge repair project and added nearly $20 million to the cost, but a member of the state’s construction oversight team claims the contractor got paid extra to fix a problem of its own making.

The Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge, where Interstate 310 crosses the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, was only the third cable-stayed bridge in the U.S. when it was built in the late 1970s. Now a very popular bridge design across the country, cable-stayed bridges use high-tension wire bundles to connect a bridge deck to the towers, so the roadway is supported from above instead of from underneath.

The aging cable stays on the I-310 bridge had been corroding, and after an interstate bridge across the Mississippi River collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development set about replacing the 72 cables on the Hale Boggs Bridge, one by one.

It was the first cable-stay replacement project ever performed on a U.S. bridge, state DOTD bridge design engineer Paul Fossier said.

He said that uniqueness is a big reason why the DOTD and contractor Kiewit Louisiana Co. were caught off-guard a year into the project when they discovered the cable system Kiewit selected was too large to fit properly inside the steel towers.

After two years of negotiations between Kiewit and DOTD, the state approved a $15.3 million change order so Kiewit could create new holes in the towers, at all 144 locations where the new cables would connect. By the time the cable replacement project ended in 2012 – two years later than first expected – the state had agreed to pay Kiewit $19.2 million in change orders to bring the total project cost to almost $50 million – two-thirds more than Kiewit’s winning bid.

Although drawings in the state’s construction bid documents note that the contractor could end up having to make modifications to the steel towers, state records show the Kiewit project team complained that they didn’t expect such major modifications.

Fossier said it wasn’t Kiewit’s fault. He said other construction firms that bid for the work would have encountered the same surprise and the state would have had to pay additional money to cover extensive modifications to the bridge towers.

He said the original steel shop drawings and as-built schematics from the 1970s were “accurate,” but he suspects that alterations were made when the bridge was first erected that never got recorded. Not until the state paid Kiewit to do a laser survey that captures images of the inside of the steel towers did anyone realize that the anchorage system Kiewit was using was too big.

Asked why surveys weren’t done ahead of time, Fossier said, “We learned from our mistakes there. The next time we would do that.”

Fossier helped oversee the project from Baton Rouge. But a member of the state construction team that was on-site for all 1,100 days of the work says the state should have held Kiewit responsible for what happened. He no longer works for DOTD, but spoke to WWL-TV on condition of anonymity because he still deals with government projects.

“They picked a cable system which had the largest cables, which meant they had to do more modifications on the bridge,” he said. “Some of the other cable systems are smaller and may not have required as extensive modifications.”

Indeed, public emails show state officials discussing the option of an alternate cable system offered by the French company Freyssinet, which is touted as the smallest on the market. But state leaders in Baton Rouge allowed Kiewit to keep using the larger system it originally selected, one that forced the contractor to bring in a large boring machine – again at additional cost to the state – to cut new holes in the towers.

The anonymous source told WWL-TV that negotiations over who would have to pay for the changes were contentious, with the then-secretary of DOTD, Sherri LeBas, asking Kiewit how much it would cost to replace them with a completely new contractor, according to the source.

But Fossier said negotiations over change orders are typical and said he didn’t remember if LeBas ever asked about terminating Kiewit. LeBas, who is no longer in government, did not respond to requests for comment.

When the negotiations concluded in 2011 and the state agreed to pay Kiewit the disputed additional $15.3 million, the change order was signed by the DOTD’s chief engineer in Baton Rouge, but not by the project engineer on-site, Alan Weber.

Weber signed more than two dozen other change orders on the project that approved nearly $4 million in extra payments to Kiewit, but not the one for modifying the towers so the cables would fit. When asked why, Fossier said it was because the state’s on-site team didn’t have the expertise for such work and needed help from more experienced people at headquarters.

But the member of the on-site team who spoke to WWL-TV said they had plenty of expertise in their group and he knows exactly why the change order was left unsigned.

“It was Kiewit's means and methods, and if their means and methods didn't work, they were responsible, not the state,” he said. “We felt they were screwing up the job.”

But Kiewit spokesman Bob Kula said the company worked in partnership with the state DOTD to address the issues that arose.

“Together, we managed many complex issues on this first cable-stayed replacement project in North America, including change orders that were negotiated with and approved by the LaDOTD,” Kula said. “We stand behind our safety record of no recordable incidents on the project and the quality and safety of the work we completed as part of our contract.”

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