Steve Morgan

WHEN A BRAND-NEW, multimillion-dollar deck began breaking dramatically apart on the Morrison Bridge in 2012, there were plenty of places to focus blame. 

In a lawsuit that went to trial earlier this year, Multnomah County, the bridge's owner, made scathing claims against the Washington State-based construction outfit that installed the deck, and the East Coast companies that supplied it ["A Bridge Broken," Feature, Feb 4].

County attorneys also had sharp words for the engineering firm that had drawn up plans for installing the new surface—crafted from a semi-experimental plastic. That company, Hardesty & Hanover (H&H), had bungled its calculations, the county said. What's more, it had purposely neglected to tell the county that the same decking had failed on a similar bridge in Florida, using similar calculations. 

"This is no small matter," the county wrote in a December 2014 court filing accusing H&H of professional negligence and repeatedly casting doubt on the firm's expertise. A jury agreed, ordering the engineering firm to pay more than a fifth of the $5.6 million in damages for the defective bridge.

Today, the county's at work figuring out how to spend millions more to replace the badly botched deck project. But while officials are done with that experimental plastic, they've eagerly re-hired the engineering firm that helped make it such a debacle.

It turns out New York-based H&H has a central role in figuring out how to switch out the Morrison's cracking deck with a heavier, costlier option: a steel grate partly filled with concrete and covered with an asphalt-like surface.  

And the county's singing a markedly different tune these days about H&H's abilities. Now, rather than a company that "failed to meet the applicable standards of professional care" on the Morrison—helping lead to lane closures, lower speed limits, and future construction snarls on one of the city's busiest bridges—the county's painting H&H as eminently qualified.

"The company has consulted on numerous bridge repair projects for Multnomah County in the last 15 years," county spokesman Mike Pullen wrote in a response to the Mercury's questions. "Their engineers have extensive knowledge of our bridges."

By the time the county begins stripping down the Morrison early next year to give it its second brand-new deck in half a decade, an expensive process will already be well under way.

The county recently spent about $640,000 just to study how best to replace the defective plastic decking. Now, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is getting ready to pay up to $794,102 to design a new one—a system that'll be dramatically heavier than both the defective plastic and the open steel grate that served the Morrison for decades, and will require careful engineering.

H&H is integral to that process. While the county and ODOT selected local firm David Evans and Associates (DEA) to run the redesign, H&H is going to carry out almost as much of the work—largely figuring out how to make the bridge open and close smoothly when it weighs far more.

Both the county and the state acknowledge H&H messed up the last Morrison project, but they say they've got confidence that it'll do a good job this time around.

"They had somebody working on that project that made some mistakes and they ended up paying for them," says ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. "This is a different part of the company."

Neither H&H nor David Evans and Associates responded meaningfully to the Mercury's questions by deadline.

H&H is also working with the county on another big bridge effort: the overhaul of enormous wheels that help the Broadway Bridge lift and lower. That's potentially a $10 million project.

And while it's true Multnomah County's worked with H&H for years, the allegations that arose at this year's trial don't suggest a company that always has its partners' best interests at heart.

Not only did the county contend that H&H failed "to perform complete and accurate calculations" when it came to installing the plastic deck, it also noted the company didn't disclose that similar calculations it had performed for a near-identical project in Florida had been disastrous. The bridge in that case was tiny and rural—set among Southeast Florida's sugarcane fields—but the results were similar.

"It worked great for a year and then all of a sudden started breaking up bad, fast," an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation told the Mercury earlier this year.

The county contended in court that, had it known about the failures in the Florida project, it could have altered its approach on the Morrison, forcing a fresh assessment of whether the deck it had selected was a good fit.

H&H didn't see it that way. An official with the company, Henri Sinson, said in sworn testimony that the county—the same county touting a 15-year relationship with H&H—hadn't even technically hired him (a decking supplier had as part of the county project), freeing him from the need to communicate with county officials.

"I just assumed that the parties that... determined to put this system on the Morrison Bridge would have done the necessary research," Sinson testified.

The new, heavier decking on the Morrison Bridge is expected to cost roughly $7.1 million, a 65 percent increase over initial costs of the botched deck on the bridge today.