Taxpayers on the hook for millions in new 520 Bridge repairs

Taxpayers on the hook for millions in new 520 Bridge repairs
SEATTLE -- You may not realize it, but you - taxpayers - are now on the hook for millions of dollars to repair the problems with the new 520 Bridge. You know, the bridge that hasn't even opened yet.

For months, the KOMO 4 Problem Solvers have been exposing the serious constructions flaws with the pontoons for the bridge. Now we're trying to find out how much the repairs will cost you.

Problem is, the state won't tell us. Instead WSDOT is taking public documents that you have a right to see and blacking out critical sections after we used public records laws to get them. We think you deserve to see what they're hiding behind the black ink, so KOMO 4 is suing the state for violating the law.

At the same time, we've also discovered that the reserve fund for the Pontoon Project has already been depleted to fix the cracks and leaks we've uncovered.

Whether it's the first cycle of pontoons on Lake Washington or the second batch of mammoth concrete boxes under construction in Aberdeen, every week, WSDOT managers are calculating costs. What's the taxpayer price-tag for repairing the leaks and cracks the Problem Solvers uncovered? What's the price for re-designing the other 27 pontoons yet to be built?

The Problem Solvers started asking about costs last October. This is what Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond told us then, "you can be guaranteed that we're going to pay what we are due to pay for but nothing more."

WSDOT wouldn't say then - and still refuses to tell - how much taxpayers may have to pay. At a state House Transportation Committee last week, Representative Dan Kristiansen (R- Snohomish) asked Sec. Hammond, "Do we have any idea what the preliminary costs that we as the state, it sounds like, are going to be dealing with?" Secretary Hammond confirmed the state is liable for most of the pontoon problems, "when there's a design flaw - we own it." But she never answered how much it could cost.

State Senator Curtis King co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee: "We have no idea of what is the significance from a cost standpoint."

To pin down the taxpayers' risk, the Problem Solvers sifted through tens of thousands of documents. And we found two single reports from September - long before the extent of the problems were known. One showed probable costs for repairs and redesign already well over $40 million. The other that the Pontoon Project's reserve for cost overruns already showed a negative balance of nearly $25 million.

"We as legislators should be upset about the fact that we're spending more money that we thought we were going to have," says King.

When we asked WSDOT for more recent construction reports, we got page after page after page of reports with blacked out - or redacted - numbers. Now KOMO and the Problem Solvers are suing the state, asking for complete cost reports. "Every time we spend another million dollars," says Sen. King, "it's the citizens of the state of Washington that are paying that."

Last fall, a Problem Solver investigation revealed all six of the first pontoons from Aberdeen had extensive cracking and developed leaks. "They know they have a problem," adds Senator King, "and part of it is because of the work that your station has done and you have done to bring it to the forefront."

Now our insider sources tell us that, in spite of extensive repairs, cracks in the bottom of at least some of those pontoons are getting worse. So now the state is considering a brand-new fix - using steel tendons to tighten the pontoons side to side, called 'post-tensioning' - and hopefully seal the persistent cracks. WSDOT Construction Engineer Jeff Carpenter told us, "so if we put the post-tensioning on, that's an option that we feel very confidant will give us a good solution."

Earlier this week, WSDOT showed us inside Pontoon 'R' currently under construction in Aberdeen. We saw several sections with blue marks denoting what WSDOT told us are non-structural cracks - less than .006 inches in width and Carpenter told us, "it's just the reflective cracking we're getting with the stresses." We saw several sections already showing numerous crack repair, including in the anchor gallery and the roof or 'deck' of Pontoon R. That confirmed visually what the Problem Solvers found in an internal WSDOT report saying that while overall there is less cracking with this second cycle of pontoons, in some areas - cracking is now occurring at a higher rate than in the first cycle. Carpenter: "We did get more of the cracking than we would have liked, but it's been sealed."

Now legislators are starting to demand assurances that the pontoon fixes will work. Senator King: "We need to be very much assured that that's going to happen or we need to start over."

Secretary Hammond and WSDOT say the contingency reserve funds set up for the other 520 bridge contracts have enough money in them to cover cost overruns from the pontoon project. But without current project documents - we can't confirm that. That's why KOMO 4 is suing the state for those public records to force them to give us - and you - answers about those costs.