DelDOT files lawsuit over Indian River Inlet Bridge miscues

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011

By Michael Short

The Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) is seeking millions in damages because of  miscues in the long-standing effort to build a new inlet bridge.

DelDOT filed suit in Sussex County Superior Court on Friday, Jan. 28 against engineering firms involved in building the previous earthen approach ramps to the new Indian River Inlet bridge. Those ramps settled and shifted more than expected, forcing them to be removed in 2008.

DelDOT then went back to the drawing board and re-designed the inlet bridge project. Some of the two approach ramps remained in place, but most of the material was simply hauled away at a cost of millions.

While the new bridge construction is now moving quickly forward, that problem has continued to stick in the craw of many Sussex County legislators, who demanded accountability from the state agency.

Those legislators have been quick to demand accountability and they chided DelDOT in a September, 2010 letter for being slow to release results of a study of what went wrong with the approach ramps.

Friday’s lawsuit seeks $19.6 million in damages from Figg Bridge Engineers and MACTEC  Engineering and Consulting. It alleges that errors by the companies caused the problems, which rendered the approach ramps unusable.

“DelDOT hired industry leading engineer experts who conducted a thorough and comprehensive review to find out why the roadway embankments failed and who should bear responsibility for those failures,” said DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks.

Wicks went on to say that DelDOT tried to resolve the issues without litigation, but was unable to reach a resolution “that’s fair to taxpayers. We are now seeking a resolution in court.”

But that allegation has been challenged by MACTEC and both sides say they welcome the chance to have the facts of the case aired.

In a statement, MACTEC, a subconsultant, said that many of the problems were caused by DelDOT.

The firm said specifically that DelDOT continued to use plans for the earthen approaches to the bridge, even though the design for the bridge that used those approaches had already been abandoned.

MACTEC also alleged that DelDOT had forged ahead without involving  its’ design team and had conducted “secret meetings”. They alleged an independent report on the embankments “was based on incorrect assumptions and minimal information and ultimately proved to be inaccurate before the deconstruction of the embankments commenced.”

“We’ve seen these arguments from MACTEC before and look forward to rebutting them in court,” said DelDOT Spokesman Geoff Sundstrom. “MACTEC’s statements do not explain away that it substantially underestimated the amount and timing of the settlement of the embankments designed for the Indian River Inlet Bridge.”

“As embankment construction was nearing completion in early 2007, excessive settlement, bulging, tilting and other deformation of the embankment walls were observed,” according to DelDOT.  “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.”

A statement from Delaware’s Congressional delegation was released shortly after the lawsuit was made public.  The delegation called the earlier problems a setback and said they are pleased that DelDOT is seeking to recover the losses.

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