With spotlight on safety, Connecticut DOT says state's bridges are safe

With the spotlight on bridge safety following the collapse of a pedestrian span last Thursday at Florida International University in Miami, the Connecticut Department of Transportation said Monday that it is confident its construction and inspection methods ensure the state's bridges are safe.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the collapse of the Florida bridge that caused at least six fatalities, the Associated Press reported. The bridge — designed by FIGG Bridge Group for Munilla Construction Management — was slated to open to pedestrians in 2019, according to the AP.

The Associated Press has reported that FIGG was found to have construction violations from a 2012 incident in which part of a Virginia bridge it was constructing fell.

In Connecticut, FIGG Bridge Group has worked as a consultant inspection firm alongside the state DOT on about nine bridge construction projects, including the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge and the ongoing Gold Star Memorial Bridge construction, according to the DOT.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Monday the full investigation needs to take place to determine what happened in the Florida bridge collapse.

He said FIGG is a well-respected multinational company that has worked on thousands of projects worldwide and is working in a much different role in Connecticut than with the Florida bridge.

The company is working in conjunction with the DOT, and under the DOT's oversight, to ensure construction on the Gold Star meets the DOT's criteria.

"It's a layered process," he added. "No one person has the final say on anything."

Accelerated Bridge Construction

The Florida bridge made use of a technique called Accelerated Bridge Construction, which has been the topic of much recent discussion since the collapse, but Nursick cautioned against drawing comparisons between the Florida bridge and any projects in Connecticut that used Accelerated Bridge Construction. 

He said Accelerated Bridge Construction is simply a term for a methodology that reduces the on-site construction time frame for a project and carries no more risks than conventional construction methods.

The DOT used Accelerated Bridge Construction when it replaced a bridge on Interstate 84 in Southington over a weekend in 2014, rather than move forward with a conventional construction project that would have created traffic congestion for potentially more than two years.

The DOT constructed the bridge at a staging area next to the highway, using both prefabricated components and components constructed at the site, and then closed the highway during installation, he said. 

The DOT also used Accelerated Bridge Construction to replace the Oil Mill Road bridge in Waterford.

When the DOT performs Accelerated Bridge Construction, it uses the same "tried and true" construction and engineering principles as conventional construction, he said. For example, the pre-fabricated pieces meet the same design standards as a conventionally constructed span.

But since much of the time-consuming work is done away from the bridge, there is less of an impact to the public than in a typical construction project, he said.

Nursick compared the practice to buying a pre-fabricated shed and installing it in your backyard, versus building it from scratch.

"It's not a cost-cutting measure by any stretch, and it's not a corner-cutting measure by any stretch," he said of Accelerated Bridge Construction.

Michael Culmo, chief technical officer for CME Associates, said Accelerated Bridge Construction is actually a safer construction method, as it minimizes disruptions to workers and drivers.

CME Associates, a multi-disciplinary civil engineering firm, specializes primarily in transportation, bridges, and highways. Culmo describes his firm as an expert in Accelerated Bridge Construction. The firm helped manage the Oil Mill Road bridge project.

"We never sacrifice quality for speed," Culmo said. "We never ever sacrifice safety for speed. In fact, we look to improve safety."

Nursick said that regardless of the construction method, all of the DOT's 4,000 structures across the state are inspected at least once every two years in a process in which every portion is critiqued and its condition is catalogued, Nursick said. DOT engineers and consultants then review that information.

"You have multiple layers of engineering experts reviewing those inspection documents," he said.

"Through rigorous inspection, we can certify and verify all our bridges are safe, no matter how they have been constructed," he added.

More understanding of bridge safety

Nursick said a thorough investigation needs to take place — without conjecture and speculation — to determine what the cause or causes and contributing factors were in the Florida bridge collapse. He said professionals in the industry will be closely following the investigation.

"Everyone is going to be watching this to see if any lesssons can be applied from it moving forward," he said.

Since the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich collapsed in 1983, the understanding of how bridges of various shapes, sizes and design deteriorate and age has greatly increased, Nursick said. Design features have drastically changed to include redundancies to ensure safety.

The Mianus River Bridge was a "pin and hanger" bridge that didn't have redundancies built in. Bridges today aren't built like that and instead have redundant safety features, Nursick said.

Following the 1983 collapse, there was a massive influx in transportation funding, he said. But today, he said, there is a shortage of funding.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced in January that he would curtail $4.3 billion in projects if the General Assembly doesn't find more funding for the Special Transportation Fund.

This would mean less work on rehabilitation and preventive maintenance of bridges and roads, which would end up costing the state more in the long run, Nursick said. 

But he said the agency can still ensure the public's safety through the bridge inspection program. If the state identifies safety problems and is unable to perform the necessary work, it can close a bridge to ensure safety.

k.drelich@theday.com

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