Special Reports

Narrows bridge subcontractor stops its work

The Japanese company that is providing the mile-long steel deck for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge has sued the bridge builder, Tacoma Narrows Constructors, raising the possibility that the $849 million project might not be finished on schedule.

Nippon Steel Kawada Bridge sued Monday in Thurston County Superior Court, naming not only TNC but also Samsung Heavy Industries, the South Korean company working for NSKB to fabricate and assemble the deck sections.

The state Department of Transportation is not named in the lawsuit.

A dispute over extra work caused by a TNC redesign led Samsung to stop all work on the 146 massive bridge sections on Sept. 6. The sections have been under construction at its shipyard on Koje Island in South Korea.

TNC’s internal schedule originally called for the first deck section is to be hoisted into place in February 2006, a schedule NSKB will not meet.

In statements issued Tuesday, the manager of the bridge project and state Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald sought to relieve any concerns that the bridge will fall behind schedule, which calls for the bridge to open in April 2007.

“WSDOT has no reason to believe, at this time, that the dispute will affect the completion schedule for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge,” MacDonald said. “We are closely monitoring the situation. Should it become a threat to the schedule, we will let the public, local communities and elected officials know. In the meantime, we support and encourage TNC’s active role in resolving the dispute.”

Manuel Rondon, TNC’s project manager, said, “Our priority remains the timely and high-quality completion of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, and I can report that the project is on schedule.

“We are reviewing the legal filings, we will respond to points as related to TNC, and will continue to take appropriate steps to ensure that the project remains on time.”

In the lawsuit, NSKB charges that TNC “radically redesigned” plans for the bridge deck after its contract was signed, saving steel but requiring up to 14 months of extra work.

According to NSKB, the contract specifies that, if less steel were used, TNC would pay NSKB less, allowing the bridge builder to pocket the savings. TNC is paying NSKB $63 million for the bridge deck, according to court papers.

NSKB says it’s unfair for it to have to bear the expense of the extra work for no additional money.

In the complaint, NSKB says it paid Samsung $12 million above the originally agreed upon $24.6 million to do the extra work caused by the redesign. Samsung later said that was not enough and stopped work, even though it is contractually bound to keep working during such disputes, according to NSKB.

NSKB is asking for a court order sending Samsung back to work. And it wants to be out from under the threat of a lawsuit by TNC for not getting the bridge sections to the Narrows on time.

Before Samsung quit work on the deck sections, it had agreed to send the sections to Washington state in three shipments, on March 31, May 31 and June 30, a time frame the lawsuit throws into doubt.

TNC’s contract with the state calls for the first deck section being lifted into place no later than May 7, said transportation department spokeswoman Claudia Cornish.

“That’s the only deadline we care about,” she said.

TNC has so far met all of its contractual deadlines with the Department of Transportation. But tower completion lagged behind TNC’s internal plans and the catwalk installation is taking longer than managers hoped.

Under the state’s design/build arrangement with TNC, the company is being paid a fixed price of $615 million. If TNC spends less than that, it keeps the profit. If it spends more, it takes the loss, not the state.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693