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DelDOT files suit against Indian River Inlet Bridge consultants

DOVER, DEL. — On Jan. 28, 2011, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) filed suit in the Superior Court for Sussex County against bridge design firm Figg Bridge Engineers Inc. and its geotechnical subconsultant MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc. for geotechnical errors in connection with the Indian River Inlet Bridge replacement project. The suit asserts that MACTEC, as a sub-consultant for Figg, failed to account for the nature and extent of settlement of soil under the earthen roadway embankments constructed as roadway approaches over the inlet. The suit further alleges that MACTEC provided erroneous information regarding the soil settlement to DelDOT.

MACTEC denies the allegations in the lawsuit and cites DelDOT’s actions, project management, and decision-making as the factors that led to increased costs for the bridge. MACTEC believes that an objective, fact-based review of the chronology of events, DelDOT’s responsibilities, and DelDOT’s decisions, including withholding of key information from Figg and MACTEC with the approval from the highest level in DelDOT, will result in dismissal of the complaint.

The lawsuit states that the deficiencies in the embankments are directly attributable to the failures and omissions of MACTEC, and that MACTEC, as sub-consultant to Figg, breached the standard of care that it owed to DelDOT. These statements are based upon comprehensive studies prepared by the engineering firm of O’Connell & Lawrence Inc. and the geotechnical consulting firm of Golder Associates Inc., as well as observations of experts made during deconstruction of the embankments, according to DelDOT.

The lawsuit alleges that:

  • MACTEC did not adequately analyze monitoring data and thus did not recognize that the intended embankment stability had dropped below minimally acceptable levels during and upon completion of construction.
  • The embankments settled and deformed substantially more than MACTEC had advised DelDOT would be the case. This is because MACTEC miscalculated the nature and extent of settlement in the soft clay under the embankments, and did not take into account other types of settlement.
  • MACTEC miscalculated the time intervals during which settlement would occur.
  • MACTEC failed to specify a process for monitoring data or implementing necessary action if required by field conditions.

DelDOT seeks as damages its costs to construct the original earthen embankments and their partial removal, together with other related damages in excess of $19.6 million. The suit also alleges that the portions of the remaining embankments continue to settle, which had to be accounted for in the design of the new bridge approaches contract. The lawsuit states Figg is responsible due to the errors and omissions of MACTEC, its subconsultant. Figg has cooperated in DelDOT’s investigation of this project.

Construction of the earthen embankments began in February/March 2006. As embankment construction was nearing completion in early 2007, excessive settlement, bulging, tilting, and other deformation of the embankment walls were observed. A subsequent independent analysis of the south approach embankment revealed that the excessive and uneven settlement was expected to continue. After analyzing whether to salvage or replace the embankments, DelDOT concluded that the embankments would pose continual and costly maintenance, as well as construction and safety risks and should be replaced with elevated roadway approaches to the new bridge. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which is providing a large portion of the funding for the replacement bridge, agreed with DelDOT’s conclusion to remove the embankments, DelDOT reported.

However, MACTEC notes multiple key points that support its position, highlighting DelDOT’s responsibilities:

  • In 2003-2004, the Figg/MACTEC design team’s work was examined by DelDOT, a University of Delaware professor, the design team of T.Y. Lin and Schnabel Engineering, and the FHWA. All parties commented on and ultimately approved the design. Based on these reviews, MACTEC met all contractual requirements.
  • In November 2005, despite the fact that the original bridge design was canceled, DelDOT authorized spending millions of dollars to construct embankments for the original bridge. DelDOT knew and understood that the original bridge would never be built and that any other bridge design would require that changes be made to the embankments, which would likely include the removal of large sections, MACTEC said.
  • In response to preliminary concerns about embankment settlement, DelDOT retained the services of an independent geotechnical firm, with which DelDOT began to have meetings unbeknownst to MACTEC, according to the subconsultant. The geotechnical firm ultimately reported in August 2007 that the settlement would be greater than anticipated and would take longer than anticipated. However, the report was based on incorrect assumptions and minimal information and proved to be inaccurate before the deconstruction of the embankments commenced, MACTEC said. Despite requests from Figg and MACTEC, DelDOT, with approval from the highest level in DelDOT, refused to share pertinent information with the design team.
  • In October 2007, DelDOT prepared a Proposed Path Forward. When this document was reviewed by the FHWA, they labeled it as “full of scare tactics and misdirection to avoid doing the proper engineering.” Rather than performing the engineering requested by the federal government’s primary technical agency for bridge design and construction, DelDOT forged ahead on its predetermined path without involving the design team.
  • In January 2008, DelDOT hired outside counsel and two consulting claims firms to assist in the investigation at an estimated cost of $2.1 million. Neither consulting firm was asked to review/recommend methods to address technical issues of concern, according to MACTEC. Instead, the firms were requested to determine the fault of the design team. Three years later, each firm issued reports. Both firms have acknowledged they cannot support the report of the independent geotechnical firm upon which the DelDOT Proposed Path Forward was based, that they had not considered the bases of DelDOT’s decision, and that they did not investigate the installation of certain critical aspects of the embankments by the contractor.
  • In April 2008, geotechnical monitoring data showed that the embankments had reached the required settlement and the original bridge design plan could have been constructed without removal of the constructed embankments. The predictions on the amount and length of time for settlement by the independent geotechnical firm were clearly overstated, MACTEC stated.
  • In May 2008, DelDOT authorized spending millions of dollars to deconstruct the embankments. DelDOT claims the decision to be based on the engineering report from the independent geotechnical firm, however, this expenditure was the direct result of DelDOT’s 2005 decision to proceed with building embankments for a bridge design that was never intended to be built, according to MACTEC. DelDOT had to accommodate the new bridge design by removing significant amounts of the embankment on both sides regardless of the accuracy of any predictions made by anyone as to settlement.