(Un)Screwed 

The Morrison Bridge Is Coming Undone, Says Lawsuit

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THE MORRISON BRIDGE is no slouch.

Ferrying an estimated 50,000 vehicles a day across the Willamette, it is the busiest of Portland's six county-owned bridges. And with newly bedecked lift spans completed early last year, a ride across Morrison should be the safest and most pleasurable it's been in decades.

Instead, court documents suggest, it's falling apart.

Flurries of claims and lawsuits have emerged in the past year, many alleging the contractor that installed the new deck, Washington State-based Conway Construction, still owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to subcontractors and suppliers.

Far more worrying, though, are fresh assertions that the Morrison's new surface—a skid-resistant polymer the county says is preferable to the old steel grating—is wholly inadequate. Screws in the apparatus are coming undone, documents allege, and its top sheets are shifting under the weight of crossing vehicles.

The party making those claims? Conway—the outfit that completed the work—which purports to be drawing on information straight from the county.

In a complaint submitted earlier this year, the construction company now says the decking it installed "was not appropriate or adequate for the project."

According to Conway, Multnomah County staffers have reached out to say the polymer deck system is "defective," that panels are coming loose—and that the problems are getting worse.

In other words, the new, safer Morrison Bridge deck may have to be replaced.

Conway's not the only litigious party in the debacle. A subcontractor, Wisconsin-based Safway Services, has sued Conway in a separate case, claiming it's owed $165,800, plus interest, for scaffolding it supplied on the project. The dispute is currently before an arbitrator.

And Multnomah County will likely add to the pile. The board of commissioners on Thursday, August 1, gave county attorneys permission to file suit, though no one is saying what it's about.

"The county does not plan to publicly comment on the specifics of the potential litigation," says spokesman Mike Pullen.

The suit Conway filed last August offers some hints. Initially, Conway had tried to swat away claims from two suppliers—North Carolina-based ZellComp, Inc. and Virginia-based Strongwell Corporation—that it still owes more than $300,000 for the deck material.

But after hearing the county's criticisms, it amended its arguments. Now, Conway wants to be reimbursed under a warranty for more than $1.3 million it says it paid ZellComp for the bridge decking.

The suit claims ZellComp, in extensive talks with the county before bidding on the project, assured officials its deck system was a good fit. At the same time, it says, "available information showed that the ZellComp FRP [fiber-reinforced polymer] deck system was not appropriate nor adequate for the project."

Since the $4.2 million project's completion in March 2012, the county has complained the "deck system on the project was defective," Conway's suit says. "The county alleged... decking panels had come loose, causing damage to the panels, the fiberglass topcoat, and the roadway. The county alleged that the problem was getting progressively worse."

Pullen declined to comment on the assertions in Conway's court filings.

Meanwhile, ZellComp, the lone remaining defendant in the suit, denies the allegations, and crows about the Morrison Bridge project on its website.

Its decks "provide a way to greatly extend the life of many deteriorating bridges," ZellComp says. (One of the company's systems was installed on the Broadway Bridge in 2005.)

"The county has identified some minor issues with the bridge, and the county has stated that they don't know what's causing the issues," ZellComp President and CEO Dan Richards said in an e-mail. "We don't believe it is the deck. We deny any allegations that our product is defective, and we are vigorously defending against Conway's claims."

Just who or what might be the target of a potential county lawsuit is unclear. Joe Yazbeck, Conway's attorney, tells the Mercury he was surprised county officials appear to be itching to sue.

Yazbeck says he recently took sworn testimony from Ken Huntley, the county's project manager for the Morrison deck replacement, as part of another suit.

"He said, based on the research they've done so far, they can't point to anything that Conway did wrong," Yazbeck says. "We were pleasantly surprised."

Yazbeck says the county has asked an expert from California to come review the bridge later this month. Pullen, the county spokesman, wouldn't confirm that, saying: "We can't comment on matters in litigation." (Never mind that the county hasn't actually filed suit yet.)

That the newly laid deck might be unfit is potentially costly for taxpayers. It's also not all that surprising. Almost since work began, the Morrison Bridge project was marred by controversy.

In July 2011, officials stopped work on the project, after concerns that toxic debris was making its way into the river, potentially harming fish migrations. The county even threatened to pull its contract with Conway—a company the Oregonian reported bridge officials were wary of from the beginning—but finally reached an understanding with the contractor. Even so, the bridge opened months later than planned.

The Morrison Bridge, according to its latest rating from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) in 2011, is in good shape. It's got a 66.2 sufficiency rating out of a possible score of 100—the highest among Portland's county-owned bridges—and is rated "not deficient." Only the state-owned Fremont and Marquam Bridges were rated higher when ODOT last checked.

Those numbers aren't necessarily a true picture of the bridge's condition, though. According to ODOT Bridge Program Managing Engineer Bert Hartman, sufficiency rating was designed for highlighting bridges' funding needs, and isn't a straight-up gauge of fitness.

"We don't really use it that much," he says.

Nevertheless, Hartman said deck problems like those described in court papers would likely hurt the Morrison's rating.

A new inspection is slated for this year. 

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