The Tea Leaves 

2009 Study Predicted Morrison Bridge Woes

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THE MORRISON BRIDGE'S fate was foretold in 2009. In Virginia.

Researchers laboring for that state's transportation department had been studying a relatively new polymer material being used on bridge decks. The system—supplied by a North Carolina company—worked great on flat bridges, they concluded. It was resilient and strong.

But on spans that slope or arc, the polymer showed some worrying weaknesses. A startling two-thirds of the screws in the deck loosened or broke under repeated stress. Panels shifted. It was probably not, the researchers cautioned, a good idea to use the stuff on sloping bridges. Not in Virginia.

No one bothered to tell Multnomah County.

Today, the very material that drew concerns across the country four years ago has cropped up on the Morrison Bridge—with many of the same results. Months-old claims that the bridge's new deck was a botched job became more-or-less official on September 12, when the county finally said as much in court documents.

Echoing claims made by other litigants, the county confirmed the bridge deck is cracking and that screws are coming undone. The complaint casts blame liberally—at the contractor that installed the polymer deck, the supplier that engineered it, and the company that manufactured the deck panels.

But bureaucrats and lawyers eager to find fault should perhaps also look inward.

The 2009 report had predicted what would happen when the fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) decking system offered by Durham-based ZellComp, Inc., was used on a sloping bridge like the Morrison. But county engineering staff said they'd never heard of the report—readily available online—before April of this year. By that time, a lawsuit had already emerged around the $4.2 million project, and the specter of replacing the just-replaced deck had become a real possibility ["(Un)Screwed," News, Aug 7].

"The county's review of the FRP decking is ongoing, and the county reserves the right to identify other defects and property damage as they become known," the county's legal complaint reads.

The cost of repair, it notes, is unclear, "but the total damages the county will incur as a result of these defects" could top $2 million.

Officials hope that money will come from an insurance company that guaranteed the work of the project's main contractor, Washington State-based Conway Construction. But in documents obtained through a records request, Conway makes a detailed case it's blameless in the matter—that it was merely following the ill-considered directives of county engineers.

"Knowing what it knew, or should have known, MC [Multnomah County] should not have specified the ZellComp FRP decking system for the Morrison Bridge," reads an April 22 letter to a county engineer from Conway President David Conway. "Yet MC did so. Further, MC constructively gave [Conway Construction Company] no choice but to install it."

According to testimony from county project manager Ken Huntley offered in a July deposition with Conway's attorneys, that letter marked the first time he'd ever heard of the 2009 Virginia study.

But Huntley was also resolute that he'd have used the decking even if he had seen the report. He said the Morrison Bridge was sufficiently unlike the bridges studied in Virginia. The Morrison Bridge doesn't slope as much as the spans in the study, he said, and so would cause less strain on polymer panels.

"I didn't see it having significant application for the Morrison," Huntley testified. "There was no situation even close to that on the Morrison project."

And still the screws—more than 1,000 by Huntley's estimation—are unfastening. The panels are cracking.

Multnomah County has declined to comment, other than to say the Morrison is safe. But Huntley's transcribed testimony reveals how much uncertainty there is about the structure and how it might be repaired.

Asked whether the county intends to replace the surface, Huntley responded: "If it's determined that it is failed and there is no correction, then that may be the next step we have to take."

"At this point does the county have any specific fix in mind for the FRP deck?" Huntley was asked.

"Nothing specific."

The failure to anticipate what seem to be predictable issues is particularly stark given the county's history with FRP bridge projects. A 2005 deck installed on the Broadway Bridge began cracking and taking on water shortly after installation ["Water Under the Bridge?" News, Aug 21]. A former ZellComp rival—Martin Marietta Materials—supplied that decking.

Despite those difficulties, records show county staff initially planned on buying decking for the Morrison solely from Martin Marietta, without a competitive bid process. But ZellComp pressed its case—it was far cheaper than its competitor, records show—and wound up inking a deal.

"The county essentially warranted that the ZellComp material would work," said Joe Yazbeck, a Portland attorney representing Conway. "This is really the county's baby, so to speak."

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