Story Summary

520 bridge

The 520 floating bridge spans Lake Washington and take commuters from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond. Initially opened in 1963, the bridge carries about 115,000 daily across the lake, but was initially designed to handle 65,000 vehicles per day. Tolling on the bridge began in December 2011 to pay for construction of a new bridge.

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Local News

Transportation secretary: $170 million more needed for 520 Bridge

OLYMPIA — State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said Wednesday that problems with construction of the new State Route 520 Bridge have soaked up the projected reserve fund and another $170 million will be needed to complete the project.

“We will exceed the reserve and the existing project budget,” Peterson said at news briefing.


State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson

Washington State Department of Transportation design errors in several of the pontoons that will handle the new bridge caused cracks and leaking, and that soaked up the project’s $250 million reserve fund.

“We certainly did not think when we projected out into the future that this reserve would have to take the risk and liability anywhere near the magnitude of the pontoon design error,” said Peterson.

WSDOT now needs to increase the budget on the project by $170 million.

State lawmakers had capped the budget at $2.72 billion. WSDOT wants legislators to increase that to $2.89 billion.

“If we’re going to raise the cap whenever they request, what is the point of putting a cap in there?” asked state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee.

Orcutt is concerned about how some of the big transportation projects are being managed in the state.


“We have got to make sure we don’t have these problems occurring in the future,” said Orcutt. “The public is getting very tired of these cost over-runs, and eating into these projects and eating into their wallets.”

Peterson believes WSDOT can cover the $170 million without raising taxes or toll rates.

The money will come from bonds funded through tolls and from WSDOT’s overall budget, she said.  That could come at a cost for other, smaller transportation projects around the state.

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.


Local News

More 520 bridge columns found to be defective

520 pontoon 09-11-13

Photo courtesy of WSDOT

SEATTLE — The new 520 bridge has been plagued with problems, including the recent announcement that cracked pontoons could cost the state another $400 million, and on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that six more columns on the bridge have found to be defective.

A state manager told the Times that contractors will replace the columns at no cost to taxpayers.  The disclosure of the defective columns was made at a briefing of state legislators.

The paper reported that the state knew about the defective columns in the spring, but did not disclosure that information publicly.

There are 10 columns that were built; three of them are not defective and one column was rebuilt in December.

For the complete Seattle Times article, go here.

SEATTLE – State Transportation officials are now admitting that fixing the cracked pontoons and other problems on the 520 Bridge project could reach nearly $400 million.

SR520Closed“It’s all the risks that we’ve identified to date,” said Keith Metcalf, interim chief engineer of the 520 Bridge Project.  “It’s definitely not something that we’re very proud of, but we’re working hard to manage it.”

The budget for the new bridge is over $4 billion, which includes a set-aside of $250 million as a contingency fund for any problems that arise.  It’s now clear that that pot of money is going to be spent, and then some, before the pontoon problems are fully corrected.

“We understand the frustration,” Metcalf said.

It was a year ago that the State DOT first disclosed the pontoon problem.  A design flaw caused cracks in the concrete.  At least four had to be repaired and those in the pipeline had to be re-engineered.

Last month, the state transportation secretary put the cost at somewhere around $100 million.  “As of today we see no added funds needed, because we had the reserve funds,” said Lynn Peterson at a July press conference.

But now, new estimates of just how much the state could end up shelling out.

“We took a look at it as a kind of worse-case that we know today of all known potential risks,” said Metcalf.  “That’s the number we released.”

Metcalf says a final amount won’t be known until the state finishes negotiating change orders with contractors.

“I’m frustrated,” said state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee.  “They are going to run out of money before they complete the 520 bridge.”

O’Ban worries about the ripple effects of 520 cost overruns.  “This is going to going to mean we’re taking money away from other very necessary projects in other places around this state,” said O’Ban.

O’Ban is pushing for major reforms to WSDOT, including a mandate that it disclose any future problems immediately to the Legislature.  He wants changes before any new gas tax increase, a top priority for the governor.

“It’s really hard to go to the people and ask them to tax themselves an additional 10, or 10 and a half cents when they are seeing what is happening to their current tax dollars right now,” said O’Ban, “that they’re being frankly squandered in some respects on these projects.”

Metcalf wants to make sure the public puts the problem in perspective.  “You have to balance that against the great success we’ve had in delivering the other $16 billion worth of projects,” he said.  “We’ve done a good job of delivering those on time and on budget.”

The exact number the state is giving to how much the upper limit of overruns for the pontoon problems will be is $378 million.

SR520ClosedSEATTLE — State Transportation officials now say there could be additional $128 million in overruns on the 520 bridge project, according to the Seattle Times. That would be above and beyond the $250 million contingency fund that was created for the project.

The Times noted that WSDOT is not sure where the extra money will come from, but hopes it can work with contractors to negotiate better terms on the project.

The additional costs are almost all related to cracked pontoons that were discovered last year. To address the issues, WSDOT had to engage in costly repairs and had to file change orders to redesign future pontoons.

Local News

State auditor: ‘Toll trouble cost state millions’

SEATTLE — A new report from the state auditor is critical of how the Department of Transportation implemented one of the most sophisticated tolling systems in the county.

SR-520-toll-signThe tolls on the State Route 520 Bridge will be used to pay for the span’s replacement.

The audit says in creating and implementing the toll system, the Washington State Department of Transportation lacked a clear vision, failed to address risk, and had insufficient policies and procedures.

“We have one of the best tolling systems in the country now, State Auditor Troy Kelley said in the report. “Obviously, it took some time to get there.”

Kelley’s report also said the company chosen to handle the electronic billing scored very low on its approach to technical accounting.

Problems led to a nine-month delay and what Kelley said was “a loss (of) $40 million in toll revenue, and that’s money we can’t get back.”

The tolling director for WSDOT, Patty Rubstello, disagreed, saying that toll money will be collected at the end of the contract.

Rubstello said WSDOT will go along with the recommendations made in the audit report, but also insisted that creating a new, high-tech system to collect tolls on the 520 Bridge was a huge and complex task.

“This is still new to the industry, doing this all electronic tolling and billing process, that’s really where the challenges were,” Rubstello said.

A public hearing on the audit will be held on Aug. 14.

SEATTLE — The state said Tuesday it has spent $80 million on fixes for cracked pontoons on the new State Route 520 Bridge project and more is expected in the months to come. Oh yeah, and the project will take at least a year longer.

The amount needed to fix the pontoons could reach twice the amount already spent.

But state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said no additional taxpayer money will be needed to cover these costs.

“The change orders are paid from the SR 520 contingency reserves, which are included in the program’s overall $2.7 billion construction budget, and were established to address issues just like these,” she said.

That reserve fund started at $200 million and now has about $100 million left for remaining pontoon repairs and other potential problems.

On Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Transportation also outlined the steps it has taken to prevent this kind of embarrassment in the future, including the firing of the head bridge engineer earlier this year.

“WSDOT has acknowledged responsibility for the pontoon design error  that led to the repairs we’re performing now and the agency has taken major steps to insure these types of issues are not repeated,” Peterson said.

“WSDOT has commissioned internal reviews of the history and character of decisions that were made that led to these issues,” she added.

The new 520 bridge was originally slated to open late next year, but the state said that because of the pontoon problem, that opening has been delayed at least a year and possibly as late as early 2016.

520 bridgeSEATTLE — State work crews have discovered a damaged anchor cable on the State Route 520 Bridge, but the loss of one cable does not put the span at risk, the Washington State Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

The damaged cable was found Tuesday on the north side of the westernmost pontoon, WSDOT said in a news release.

The department said the loss of one cable does not put the bridge at risk because of safety redundancy built into the cable and anchor system. The operation of the bridge will not be restricted, it said, and repairs can be conducted “with no impact to the traveling public.”

A repair plan is being developed and work could begin as soon as Friday, WSDOT said.

SEATTLE — The State Route 520 Bridge is part of David Applebaum’s daily commute from Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood to his job in Kirkland.


David Applebaum of Seattle was told he owes more than $4,000 in SR 520 Bridge tolls.

“I got a ‘Good To Go’ pass right before I started (the job) in October,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been driving over the bridge for the past eight months now.”

He didn’t think much about how much the toll was costing him each day, until he got a bill in the mail.

“The bill said I owed over $1,800. Then when I called ‘Good To Go,’ they said it was actually over $4,000.”

Most commuters pay between $2 and $5 to cross the bridge, but Applebaum was getting charged extra because the Washington State Department of Transportation said his account had incurred a civil penalty.

“You get a first toll bill, a second toll bill, and then, after that, a civil penalty,” said Craig Stone, assistant secretary of WSDOT’s Toll Division.

Applebaum said he never got those first notices. Now he`s wondering if there might be a problem with the Good To Go system.  Right after he talked to a colleague about his bill, she got one for nearly $700.

“I had never received a bill (from WSDOT) before and this was allegedly going on since November,” Mandy Emel said.

Stone said he couldn’t discuss individual accounts, but noted the bridge toll system has only been in effect for 18 months.

“You’re always going to have continuous improvement,” Stone said.  “You’re working with a software program; you’re looking at changes to that, improvement.”

He said problems have arisen when customers move or change their credit cards.  That’s why they urge anyone with questions to contact them.

“There are some that we do have to work with, and every situation is unique,” he said. “That’s why we have a customer service center, that’s why we work with individuals on this.”

Applebaum has been given a date for a hearing, and he’s hoping his case will be worked out when he appears later this summer.

WSDOT officials say you can always check the status of your account by looking at the Good To Go website. They say that’s especially important when you move or change vehicles.