Florida International University to Build New Pedestrian Bridge Two Years After Fatal Collapse

National Transportation Safety Board inspectors stand along a section of the FIU bridge on March 16, 2018, the day after it collapsed. The NTSB faulted all parties involved in the project for failing to exercise due diligence in addressing “abnormal” cracks. Photo and Caption: Charles Trainor, Jr./www.miamiherald.com

Florida International University (FIU), the largest research university in South Florida, has announced it will begin construction on a new pedestrian bridge two years after a flawed design led to the bridge’s deadly collapse that killed six people in March 2018. The state said on Wednesday, May 6 it is ready to restart the project with “enhanced safety measures.” Florida’s Department of Transportation (FDOT) announced it will launch a bid process to select engineers and contractors who will design and build a new “signature” bridge over a well-known, often congested street in Miami. 

FDOT said it plans to begin designing the new bridge at SW Eighth Street and SW 109th Avenue in 2021. The design process will take two years, and then construction will take two more years. A final completion date of 2025 is estimated to be a possibility.

The new pedestrian bridge would connect FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus to new apartment buildings for students and faculty in the City of Sweetwater’s small downtown area, which is right across the street from the campus.

The previous bridge went up on March 10, 2018, using a method called accelerated bridge construction. Five days later, the bridge collapsed over SW Eighth Street, falling on several vehicles. Police pulled numerous injured victims from the wreckage, but six people lost their lives.

A federal investigation revealed a flawed design in the previous version of the FIU bridge blueprints. As a result, the probe faulted the engineers for failing to flag structural flaws. Local authorities were also faulted by the federal probe for opting not to close the highly-congested Miami roadway on March 15, 2018. Just five days earlier, crews tried to repair a series of cracks that appeared at the north end of the span after it was hoisted into place.

Close-up of construction crane with blue sky in the background. While driving by the construction site on any given day, large cranes such as these would loom ominously over traffic. Photo: Alan Budman/Shutterstock.com

The repair work caused the damaged concrete span to collapse as motorists waited at a red light below it, killing six people, including crew members and an FIU student, and seriously injuring others.

The 2019 report from the National Transportation Safety Board took aim at all parties involved in the project, including FIU, the state and the school’s contractors, for failing to exercise due diligence in addressing “abnormal” cracks that had been growing and spreading through a crucial support junction at the span’s north end. The report concluded the connection was left critically weakened by “significant” but overlooked design errors by FIGG Bridge Engineers. FIGG engineers erroneously downplayed the significance of the cracks, the report said.

Six people died when the FIU pedestrian bridge, still under construction, collapsed on March 15, 2018. The state said Wednesday it was ready to resume the project with “enhanced safety measures.” Photo and Caption:  Roberto Koltun/www.miamiherald.com

The FDOT also said in its initial statement that it has employed new safety measures to ensure another fatal bridge collapse does not happen again. “FDOT has learned valuable lessons since the tragic events surrounding the FIU bridge collapse two years ago,” FDOT Secretary Kevin J. Thibault wrote. “The Department has worked closely with the NTSB and local partners to ensure proactive safety measures are included in the plans for this much-needed bridge.”

An FDOT statement from October 2019 said new guidance dictates that if any of the agencies, design firms, or contractors notice a problem with a project, it must immediately act to close the involved highway if the issue presents “material risks to the traveling public.”

Miami-Dade Democrats called on the DeSantis administration on Thursday, May 7 to reject Corrupt Carlos-style (in reference to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez) pay-to-play contracts for the new FIU bridge.

 “Over and over, Corrupt Carlos Giménez has doled out public money to his friends, family, and donors. He favored extending a $130 million contract to the firm who built the original bridge, because of his deep family ties to the firm,” said Steve Simeonidis, Chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “Governor DeSantis and Transportation Secretary Thibault must avoid this mistake. The next FIU bridge contract should go to a firm that does competent, safe work, not a political insider.”

FIU said the new bridge will cost $14.6 million to design and build, or about $2 million more than the old version, because of increased construction costs. The school told federal highway officials they will use a $9.5 million settlement from the contractors on the failed bridge, nearly $3.3 million in federal TIGER grants and unspecified, unused grants from the state and other agencies to pay for the bridge. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has lifted a hold on the TIGER grants for the project that was instituted after the bridge collapse, FDOT said.

FIU senior vice president Kenneth Jessell wrote that “the need for the pedestrian bridge is greater today” than when the project was initially proposed in 2013 in a letter to The Federal Highway Administration. A new, privately developed student apartment tower is about to open at the foot of the future bridge. This new student apartment tower is one of a cluster of recently built affordable residential projects in Sweetwater geared to serving the university and its student body.

Jessell said in a statement released by Florida International University that the new bridge project would include “an appropriate way to memorialize the victims of the 2018 accident.”