Fingers Crossed 

The County Knew the Morrison's Decking Had Problems, Used It Anyway

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EVEN AS WORKERS bolted new polymer decking onto the Morrison Bridge in early 2012, Multnomah County officials knew they were rolling the dice.

Some of the panels already showed cracks, and engineers realized it could pose a problem.

In fact, the panels were so flawed, a county manager wrote to a contractor, they "could have been rejected."

But letters and emails obtained by the Mercury as part of a public records request show officials decided to take a chance that the new decking would withstand the rigors of tens of thousands of vehicles a day.

After testing the panels—tests that didn't, notably, rule out further problems—the county otherwise continued with the bridge project. It had already run months longer than planned, snarled by conflict. Commuters wanted their bridge back.

But the Morrison Bridge will close again sometime next year, and its 50,000 daily users will have to find their way back to the city's other bridges. The deck panels that officials had placed their hopes in have failed beyond all expectation—cracking and shifting and loosening, according to court documents.

Those panels—or maybe even the whole deck—will need to be replaced. No one's sure of the extent of the damage.

"Even when we start the project, it may not be clear how many panels need to be replaced," says Mike Pullen, a county spokesman.

Also unknown is who'll supply the new fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) material to fix the deck. There appears to be only one company that offers an adequate product, and it's the same stuff making eerie slapping sounds on the Morrison today.

The Mercury was the first to report on the Morrison Bridge's troubles ["(Un)Screwed," News, Aug 7], and has previously described Multnomah County's past difficulties with FRP, which caused problems on the Broadway Bridge when it was installed in 2005 ["Water Under the Bridge?" News, Aug 21]. We've also reported on a 2009 study that suggested the decking that's now malfunctioning might not be suited to a bridge like the Morrison—county bridge engineers hadn't seen the document until the project was completed ["The Tea Leaves," News, Sept 25].

Now, new documents examined by the Mercury in the last week make it clear that county officials have known for well over a year something was wrong with the stuff installed on the Morrison—even if the rest of us just found out this summer.

The bridge fully reopened to traffic in March 2012 after long months of closure. For $4.2 million—a number that will rise in light of an upcoming settlement—the county did away with the slippery and treacherous steel grating that used to top the Morrison. It was replaced with FRP panels, which offered more grip and were considered strong and light enough for the balance-sensitive bridge.

But some of the panels, made by a North Carolina company called ZellComp, Inc., arrived with defects.

On April 5, 2012, less than two weeks after the bridge reopened, project manager Ken Huntley wrote to Conway Construction, the contractor that installed the deck, to explain the county would withhold $50,000 for the materials because of the irregularities, described as cracks and "voids" —essentially patches where a layer of material was missing.

"In both cases we would have rejected the pieces supplied that had the problems," Huntley wrote to a colleague a few days later, "but getting replacement ones would have taken several months and been a big cost to both the contractor and the county."

Experiments suggested the materials could withstand the rigors of bridge use, Huntley wrote. Still, the following month he offered a telling caution. "The testing and measure taken to limit the potential problems does not mean that the cracks and web voids cannot be a problem for the County in the future," Huntley wrote to Conway.

Drivers were coursing over the newly refurbished Morrison day and night, and bridge engineers had their fingers crossed.

It didn't take long for officials to learn how the panels would perform.

In October 2012, a county bridge operator reported the panels had begun showing through the special surfacing contractors had applied.

"I am sure it is not news that the Morrison's FRP panels are showing through the road surface," he wrote. "I really noticed them today (Sunday) upon arrival. I don't remember seeing them this obvious [on] Thursday when I left."

Nearly a month later, Huntley wrote to Conway to report the decking was "showing significant premature failure that was not anticipated." An Oregon Department of Transportation employee in early December 2012 wrote "major areas" of the deck were showing cracking and degradation.

The revelations have spurred a lawsuit between the county and various entities involved in the bridge project—who also are fighting among themselves about payment. That matter is scheduled for trial next September, and the county's lawyers hope the Morrison is repaired by then.

The problems, so far, have not prompted the county to close the bridge—though Pullen says engineers aren't sure how extensive the damage is. They won't know that until the bridge goes offline for repairs.

In a lawsuit filed last month against Conway, ZellComp, and another company, Strongwell Corporation, the county predicted damages "as a result of these defects will likely exceed $2 million."

This raises the question of who'll pay for the oncoming repairs—work that might not be necessary today if engineers had rejected the suspicious paneling in the first place.

That answer, at least in the short term: you, the county taxpayer. Pullen expects the county may shuffle funds from within its budget to pay for the fresh work, though he could not say for sure.

In the long-term, of course, officials hope to reclaim their costs from Travelers Insurance, which guaranteed Conway's work in the project. Whether they're successful may not be apparent until next September or later.

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