Special Reports

Bridge builders, state keep it quiet

The spectacular aerial construction on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge might thrill commuters rushing by, but the exposure is a mixed blessing for the bridge builder, Tacoma Narrows Constructors.

Unlike the below-water phase of construction, the work being done now – hundreds of feet above Puget Sound – is spectacular and impressive when all goes well.

But when the bridge builder makes mistakes, as it did in June when the delivery vessel the Swan ran into the existing bridge, the public attention can be embarrassing and distracting.

Each day, 90,000 drivers on the old bridge pass within 100 feet of the action on the new span, and “sidewalk superintendents” with binoculars stand ready to note every stumble and bashed thumb.

Since the Swan’s brush with the bridge, officials with TNC and the state Department of Transportation have kept quiet about several incidents that were potentially dangerous to workers and that could have affected interim deadlines for the remaining construction phases.

At the same time, Manuel Rondon, the forceful Venezuelan project manager who heads TNC, has decided its engineers no longer will be available for media interviews. They are too busy, he said, during this critical phase of the project.

Rondon also shifted nearly the entire public relations burden – issuing statements on progress and failures – onto the state’s Narrows bridge project office, something state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said is fine with him.

“Manuel believes the relationship with the media should be ours to manage,” MacDonald said last week. “He wants us to speak for the project. By and large, I think that’s a good arrangement.”

The hunger for details about the bridge project raises difficult policy questions: In such a high-profile, complicated project, where does the contractor’s right to privacy end and the public’s right to know begin?

Successes publicized

Generally, the state’s bridge project office issues news releases and provides information about the project’s successes, but sets a high threshold for releasing information about any troubles. It draws attention only to problems likely to affect the total cost or final completion date of the project and those that affect the environment or the quality of the finished product.

“My primary focus is solving problems and solving challenges,” said Linea Laird, the state’s project manager. “We don’t necessarily focus on the newsworthy events.”

MacDonald takes a similar view.

“The fundamental approach we are taking is to solve every challenge and get the bridge built,” he said. “A lot of the day-to-day stuff that happens, we want the contractor to sort out. We’re not nearly as interested in that as we are in overall quality.”

That hasn’t always been enough to satisfy the demand.

When the stack of deck sections aboard the transfer ship Swan turned out to be too tall to fit under the existing bridge, TNC left it to the state to make explanations. The state didn’t offer much, aside from stating the obvious, which was that TNC had used a wrong measurement.

MacDonald said the incident was a huge embarrassment, but of little significance otherwise.

“From our standpoint, we have not gone in to TNC and asked for an exhaustive explanation,” he said. “Someone made a mistake. No damage was done. Everybody took a deep breath and moved on.”

Second try kept quiet

At TNC’s request, Laird also agreed not to tell the public beforehand that the bridge builder was to make its second attempt (successfully, as it turned out) to move the Swan under the existing bridge, in the middle of the night of June 28.

And Laird and her staff intentionally misled reporters during a weeks-long delay in the project caused by suspected sabotage to winch motors aboard the Swan. The public learned of the incident after an anonymous source alerted The News Tribune.

According to workers on the Swan, when mechanics took the motors apart, they found handfuls of screws and washers that had broken gears and shattered pistons. Laird and her staff explained the delay by saying TNC was “testing the systems.”

MacDonald said the statement was accurate – the systems needed to be tested after being repaired – and that he didn’t want the problems to become a distraction.

“At the time, we were not interested in fueling speculation about the difficulties that had been encountered,” he said.

The Transportation Department also kept quiet when the automatic navigation system on the lifting barge, the Marmac, went haywire Aug. 11 and yanked a partly suspended deck section back and forth so hard it sent workers scurrying for cover.

Witnesses said the barge pulled the 488-ton deck section from side to side like a playground swing and violently bounced the bridge’s main cables until human operators took over the controls.

The Marmac’s wild ride would not have come to light if concerned observers had not tipped off a reporter.

Didn’t rate reporting

All of those situations, Laird said, fell below the threshold for releasing information to the public. The problems on the Swan didn’t affect the bridge structure itself, she said. The same reasoning applied to the Marmac and its navigation system.

“From a project perspective, it was not significant,” she said. “It was another problem that had to be dealt with. … Our interest is in keeping things moving forward.”

Similarly, when a tugboat ran into cables hanging from the bridge towers, the accident went unreported, as did a crane’s collapse on a barge near the Tacoma caisson early in the project.

“Newsworthy is a tricky word,” said Claudia Cornish, the state’s information manager on the bridge project. “There are many things that are interesting, but I wouldn’t say they’re newsworthy from a project perspective.”

Unless it affects the project’s overall $849 million budget or the 55-month schedule, the state doesn’t necessarily believe disclosure is in the public interest, Cornish said.

When workers discovered corrosion in the wire being used to spin the main cables, Laird said, she promptly went public with the news because she recognized the situation as one that could delay the bridge opening date. The opening later was pushed back three months, to July 2007.

The corrosion raised legitimate quality issues as well, she said. The public needed to be reassured that no damaged wire was used in the cables.

“It had ramifications to us,” she said. “We weren’t sure what they would be, but we knew there would be some.”

The relationship between the Transportation Department and TNC is unusual because of the unusual contractual agreement between the two.

TNC is operating under a “design-build” contract, which means that, for a flat price, the company agreed to design and build the bridge, rather than bidding on somebody else’s plans, as is usually the case in big construction projects.

Close relationship needed

Because design and construction happen at the same time, it is considered necessary for the state to have a close working relationship with the contractor, both as a collaborator and a watchdog.

Laird’s team purposely went to great lengths to establish close relations with TNC. But the closeness sometime makes the state seem more an apologist than a watchdog supervising the work on behalf of the state’s citizens.

For example, when TNC determined earlier this year that it would miss its April 2007 opening date by three months, the Transportation Department issued a release in which the words “deadline” and “delay” never appeared. The release was titled: “Updated Project Schedule Gives Motorists Good Plan for TNB (Tacoma Narrows Bridge) Opening.”

Laird rejects the idea that TNC and her project office have become too close.

“Working closely together has not compromised our independence,” she said. “It doesn’t compromise my goals and objectives.”

Laird said she agreed to keep the Swan’s second move quiet because “we wanted to build confidence in our team. We chose to not make it a media event.”

“Do I think I could have handled it differently?” she asked. “Yes. Do I regret handling it the way I did? Yes.”

MacDonald agreed.

“We should have told people when the Swan was moving the second time, and we accept that as valid criticism.”

Matter of perspective

Most of the time, though, Laird said, what information gets released and what doesn’t comes down to a matter of perspective. Her perspective is long range. She’s trying to get the bridge built.

“My primary role and responsibility is keeping this project moving forward in a responsible way,” she said. “You will never provide enough information to satisfy some people.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693