Multnomah County has estimated repair of the noisy, loosening deck of the Morrison Bridge will cost more than $2 million. But maybe that's going to change now that county officials have elected to use in-house labor to inspect and repair a third of the bridge.

The polymer panels that will apparently replace cracking, shifting slabs on the bridge's surface have cost less than $30,000 to date, according to Multnomah County purchasing records [pdf]. Those panels were manufactured by the same Pennsylvania company that produced the existing, deficient deck, which could be reason for concern.

Or maybe not.

Fresh assertions from the county reveal more about the possible cause of the bridge's problems than had previously come to light—and they don't involve product defect.

Instead, the county alleged in a recent court filing that Conway Construction, the contractor that won a $4.2 million contract for the deck replacement, did a sloppy job when screwing the panels down. In an inspection of two panels in August, county staffers found screws missing or mostly missing the surface they were supposed to use as an anchor. Some screws were even missing, the county now says.

Those allegations came as the county sought to convince a judge its allegations against Conway should not be dismissed from a pending court case over the bridge debacle.

Conway had said county officials formally approved the decking system, engineered by a North Carolina company called ZellComp, and so bore responsibility for the product's failure. And the contractor contended county bridge engineers weren't sure whether defective installation was part of the bridge's problem.

But the new response dismisses that argument. Beyond the claims of shoddily installed screws, Multnomah County points to contract language which pins responsibility for the project's materials on Conway.

One clause of the contract requires Conway to furnish "the necessary machinery, tools, apparutus, materials and labor." Similar language is sprinkled throughout the document, the county says. But internal documents also make clear the county made questionable decisions about the materials. As we've reported, county bridge staff elected to use polymer panels delivered with cracks and other defects, since demanding new ones would further delay what had already been a fraught project.

A Multnomah County judge is slated to rule on these latest arguments this month, but that will only determine whether the county's claims against Conway are dismissed. It will be months before formal blame—and the tab for repairs—is assigned.

In the mean time, crews are studying whether the problems engineers allegedly found in those two panels extend to the rest of the Morrison. The outer eastbound lane is slated to be closed for another week as crews inspect and repair the deck. Work on the outermost westbound lane begins shortly after.