A crack shows on polymer decking about to be installed on the Morrison Bridge back in 2011
  • A crack shows on polymer decking about to be installed on the Morrison Bridge back in 2011

No one in the county will talk much about the Morrison Bridge these days.

For months—as the Mercury's chronicled—Multnomah County's been wrapped up in a lawsuit regarding the apparently shoddy project to replace the bridge's slippery steel deck with a new, somewhat experimental polymer system. And when lawyers are involved, officials have an easy excuse not to talk about thorny issues.

Privately, though, former and current officials in the county say the same thing about the bungled effort. Almost immediately after the work's completion in 2012, the new deck started coming undone—with screws loosening and panels shifting on the bridge. Officials blame the contractor that installed the deck, Washington-based Conway Construction, for sloppy workmanship, and allude to being forced to go with the lowest bidder for the work, instead of the most-expert (state officials have told the Mercury that's not actually the case).

But Conway's got another argument, one it's using in an effort to get Multnomah County's $2-million-plus claim tossed from court. In a motion filed last week, the contractor says there's no evidence the Morrison's woes have to do with its workmanship. The company blames the problems instead on the polymer decking system Multnomah County chose to install on the bridge—a system engineered by a North Carolina company called ZellComp.

"The County has admitted that it has no evidence Conway performed its work on the Project in a deficient manner," the motion for summary judgment reads. "Because the County warranted that the bridge deck system would meet the requirements of the contract and provided detailed specifications, the County cannot hold Conway liable."

Attorneys are scheduled to argue the point before Multnomah County Circuit Judge Karin Immergut next month, and the outcome will have bearing on who winds up paying for repairs to the Morrison, expected to top $2 million. The county has said Travelers Insurance, which guaranteed Conway's work on the project, should pay. But if Immergut agrees with the contractor, that won't happen.

And it appears from public documents Conway has a point—at least in part. As we've reported in the past, the county initially shied away from picking the ZellComp system. Officials were tempted to go with a competitor without even opening the matter up for a bid, but ZellComp pressed its case and eventually won out (its materials were cheaper). The company officials wanted to go with? It's since gotten out of the polymer bridge business, leaving ZellComp the sole supplier of materials that will work on the Morrison.

And Conway's made a case before that the ZellComp system wasn't suited for the Morrison in the first place. The company points to a 2009 study suggesting the material in incompatible with certain curved spans. Multnomah County bridge officials have admitted they hadn't seen the study prior to awarding ZellComp the project.

Perhaps most concerning, public documents make it clear some of the polymer panels ZellComp sent for the bridge had "cracks and voids," and could easily have been turned away. In fact, the county refused to pay $50,000 of the material's purchase price because of the defects, but then kept the panels anyway. Officials didn't want the the project—which had already lagged because of concerns Conway was polluting the Willamette River—to go on any longer than it needed to.

The county expects to shut down the bridge for repairs sometime this year to make repairs on the bridge this year. The court case will determine whether what has already been a $4.2 million project grows far more expensive.