It's been well established that design errors - and a failure to catch those errors - were the root causes of the Florida International University bridge collapse that killed six people in 2018.
Now, an Inspector General report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation says expert bridge engineers within the Federal Highway Administration could have been tasked with reviewing those plans for calculation errors, but they were not.
The prospect that disaster could have been averted emerges from a 34-page IG Report, "Gaps in FHWA’s Guidance and the Florida Division’s Process for Risk-Based Project Involvement May Limit Their Effectiveness," obtained by the NBC6 Investigators.
It notes the Florida offices of the FHWA identified the FIU project involved "elevated risk," in part because the university had "questionable capacity to manage (the) project." It also noted the unique non-redundant concrete truss design added to the risks.
Despite those risks, the FHWA "Division area engineers did not consult the Division’s bridge engineer to assess risks on the FIU project, which includes a highly complex pedestrian bridge." Nor did it "perform detailed design or calculation reviews."
Had it done so, it is almost certain the fatal design errors that the National Transportation Safety Board attributed to FIGG Bridge Engineers would have been detected - because it was FHWA bridge engineers who discovered the errors for the NTSB as part of its post-disaster investigation.
By then, of course, it was too late.
The bridge collapsed under construction on March 15, 2018, killing a worker and five people in cars below on SW Eighth Street.
Had the bridge been on the Interstate Highway System, rather than a US Highway, "guidance requires FHWA to review and approve preliminary plans."
But the audit found record keeping so deficient, it is unclear exactly what was done to review the FIU bridge designs. The IG found the project "had missing or confusing information, and included only vague descriptions" of what FHWA's Florida office planned to do to address those elevated risks.
Rather than do a detailed review of the bridge design and calculations, the FHWA Florida office focused on whether the project was eligible for federal aid, which the office said was typical for them.
The audit notes best practices by another government agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, calls for them to "consult with technical experts—such as bridge engineers—on risk assessments when the projects include work in an expert’s subject matter area."
"Division officials acknowledged the shortcomings in the way they define and
document oversight scope and told us they intended to make improvements to
the oversight plans," the IG report states.
Calls seeking comment from the FHWA's offices in Tallahassee and Orlando have so far not been returned.