Report: WSDOT must reform ‘mega projects’ oversight

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TACOMA — In the aftermath of the expensive pontoon problems on the 520 Bridge project, a new report outlines big changes that need to be made to the Washington State Department of Transportation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Authors presented their findings to state legislators Wednesday at a special meeting in Tacoma.

“There is a state-of-the-art in quality assurance that, if it had been followed on that (bridge project), we likely would not have experienced the trouble that we had there,” said John Njord, one of the report’s authors.

The final bill for the cracked pontoon problems could reach nearly $400 million.  WSDOT admits it made big mistakes, and earlier this year the secretary of transportation commissioned the independent study to determine exactly what happened.

“There were multiple failures to follow protocol,” said Njord.  “Communication wasn’t good, there wasn’t a central data point for all the information to be flowing through, and you know, it caught up with them, absolutely caught up with them.”

Another reason for the pontoon problems, according to the report, was that WSDOT had the wrong management structure, putting way too much on the plate of the project supervisor.

“The chief engineer at the time was left with 17 direct reports,” said report co-author Ron Paananen.  “What we saw was an organization that was, at the headquarters level, not prepared to support the mega projects.”

State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said the department has already started to implement the recommendations, including adding a new quality-control manager for mega projects.

“There was an intense amount of pressure to get a lot of projects done in a short amount of time,” Peterson said. “The communication broke down. The clear lines of authority broke down in a very short period of time.”

The authors did say, however, that WSDOT hit a “home run” when it came to replacing the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River; part of the bridge collapsed into the river when it was struck by a semi.  It was replaced fast and without any problems.


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