City Hall

Two Council Members Foresaw Bridge Problems. They Were Ridiculed.

Scott Griggs raised objections to plowing ahead heedlessly with the Margaret McDermott Bridge.
Scott Griggs raised objections to plowing ahead heedlessly with the Margaret McDermott Bridge. Mark Graham
In the last couple of months I have been reporting here that the city still cannot open the new Margaret McDermott Bridge over the Trinity River because, a year after completion, the supervising engineer will not certify its safety. A number of readers have contacted me to say there are things in that story they find either very difficult to understand or simply not believable.

There is an answer for how this happened. I’m going to give it here. The answer should have been easier to get to, and I should have been able to provide it faster. I must thank City Council Member Scott Griggs for getting it for me so that I can provide it to you now.

The main question has been this: How could Dallas spend $115 million on what is basically a decoration rather than a functioning piece of infrastructure, then get even the decoration so wrong and so fundamentally flawed that it now is unsafe?

A quick recap: The Margaret McDermott Bridge, which carries the Interstate 30 expressway over the Trinity River from downtown to Oak Cliff, is really four independent structures. Two big concrete freeway bridges, one eastbound, one west, were built by the state.

“So the first kind of things we are looking at are really boring technical things that you and I would never see. So it’s things like the welds."— Jill Jordan

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Flanking those two on their outside borders are two gigantic arches designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The arches were placed to create the false impression that all four structures together are really one big suspension bridge.

It’s a fake suspension bridge. The state bridges cost $120 million. The decorative arches cost $115 million more.

Each arch carries a narrow concrete foot and bicycle path, one eastbound, one west, hanging on cables hundreds of feet long. Obviously one bike path with a line drawn down the center would have been more than enough at the location.

The state car and truck bridges were opened for traffic in 2013. Construction on the arches began the next year and supposedly was completed last year. But the bike and pedestrian lanes are still barricaded with criminal trespass warnings because the supervising engineer will not certify the basic safety of the structures.

When this issue first came to light, city staffers were quick to point fingers at the architect, the state and the state’s construction contractors. But email traffic unearthed by Griggs showed that at least one important problem — elements cracking in high winds — seemed to be directly connected to an insistence by city staff on cheaper parts than the ones Calatrava had called for. The city also skipped stress tests on the new cheaper pieces, over Calatrava’s objections.

So, your questions to me: Why would city staff ask for cheaper parts? Why would the city skip the stress tests? How did this happen?

We could blame the wealthy philanthropists who talked the city into building this wingding thing in the first place as an exercise in civic vanity. But they only talked. They didn’t do.

We could blame city staff for being feckless idiots. But, wait a minute, let’s look in the mirror here for a minute. City staff are just people who want to keep their jobs. They do what the boss tells them to do. Anybody want to throw the first stone on that one?

The people who did this — who built this stupid thing, who cheaped out on the parts and skipped the stress tests — were the Dallas City Council and mayor. They did it at 9:02 a.m., January 23, 2013.

Months ago when Griggs and I started talking about it, I looked for the archived videotape of that council meeting and found it was missing from the city’s website. With his greater clout, Griggs went looking for it and was told that, in the year 2018, the videotape in question could only be provided to him on a medium that could not be read by a desktop computer.

Griggs told the people in charge of the archive about a modern invention called an MP4 file and said he wanted one of those right away. Eventually they did give it to him. He sent it to me.

So what did I learn by watching? The council was voting that day on a financing package for the bridge. A few months prior, the council had been told that the arches were $20 million over budget.

At the Jan. 23, 2013, meeting, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who is no longer with the city, told the council that city staff had been able to chop the $20 million overrun back out of the cost of the bridge through a process she called value engineering. First, however, she suggested that the $20 million might have involved some fudging by the construction contractor:

“It could be,” she said, “that the contractor put things into our piece that he felt confident that we were going to do. This was a lump sum, so he was guaranteed that he was going to get that money.”

She conceded that city staff lacked the expertise to bore down into the engineering detail deeply enough to challenge the contractor: “We can’t prove that one way or another, because that’s the contractor’s business.”

But then Jordan explained how the staff had, in fact, bored into the very finest levels of construction and engineering detail looking for ways to save the $20 million: “We are also looking and working with the contractor with what we call value engineering,” she said. “So we are looking at how can the contractor build this bridge in a more cost-effective manner and produce savings.

“So the first kind of things we are looking at are really boring technical things that you and I would never see. So it’s things like the welds. The specs call for the welds to be sanded on the inside as well as the outside. Well, we would see the outside. The only person who’s going to see the inside is the bridge inspector.

“We are talking to the contractor about bolts versus welding. We are probably going to change out the railing to make it a more cost-effective design. So we are going through a bunch of the items.”

When I watched this tape the first time and she got to the part about welds and bolts — knowing what we all know now about the consequences — I have to tell you that the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I thought, “Oh, no, not the welds! Don’t mess with the welds! And what in the hell do you mean, ‘bolts versus welds?’”

Part of what I find so alarming is this: Early this year when I first started writing about this, I was provided with city documents that made it plain Calatrava had insisted on stress testing for the design deviations they knew about. Mainly that was the cheaper cable the city had substituted for the one Calatrava called for. He wanted the new cheaper one stress tested. The city refused to do it at the time, because they didn’t want to pay for the tests, even when Calatrava offered to lend the city the money for the tests.

So I’m watching this council meeting from five years ago, and I’m wondering if they told Calatrava about the bolts. And, wait a minute, are we sure people sand welds just for looks? Could sanding them not also be a way to prepare the welds to take paint better and stave off corrosion? I don’t know. Neither did the council. Jordan didn’t sound like she did, either.

click to enlarge Angela Hunt got city staff to admit that any future costs associated with the Margaret McDermott Bridge would come straight back to Dallas taxpayers. - BRIAN MASCHINO
Angela Hunt got city staff to admit that any future costs associated with the Margaret McDermott Bridge would come straight back to Dallas taxpayers.
Brian Maschino
But the council was thrilled with the savings, with the whole thing. Council Member Dwaine Caraway just kept saying over and over again, “I’m excited.” Former Council Member Vonciel Hill singled out for praise the wealthy benefactor for whose mother the arches were to be named.

Mayor Mike Rawlings said, “Another act in our vision for the Trinity River is coming to pass. This is something we have all been working on for the last two decades really. When you think for so long people were saying there’s not enough going on, and now you see these things happening.”

Two members of the City Council that day were skeptical. The only two to vote against the new funding formula were Griggs and former Council Member Angela Hunt, both of whom expressed concern about future costs to the citizens of Dallas. With some effort, Hunt got Jordan to concede that any future costs associated with the bridge would come straight back to Dallas taxpayers.

Griggs asked Jordan how much it will cost the city simply to maintain the two new Calatrava-designed bridges, once open. Jordan said the first to be built, the Margaret Hunt Hill, will cost the city $250,000 a year in maintenance. The second, the Margaret McDermott with the fake arches, costs $400,000 a year to maintain.

“We are talking to the contractor about bolts versus welding. We are probably going to change out the railing to make it a more cost-effective design."— Jill Jordan

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At the time, the City Council was being told that the McDermott was all one bridge. They did not know it was four stand-alone, independent structures. So I wonder if the $400,000 a year covers all four or only the arches.

Griggs pointed out that the cost for annual maintenance of the two new bridges together was 1 percent of the total budget for all street repair and maintenance citywide. He was suggesting that 1 percent of the overall budget for two bridges is a lot. The rest of the council shrugged, as if 1 percent sounded like nothing.

Griggs and Hunt were the subject of sneering put-downs by several on the council who thought they were nit-picking a grand concept. Council Member Tennell Atkins said he was sure the city manager would “put back” enough money to take care of maintenance. Caraway said several times that the city was “leaving money on the table” elsewhere that would more than take care of maintenance. All the city had to do was go pick the money up off the table, and they would have plenty.

The objections of Griggs and Hunt are proof that all of the information, all of the red flags and warning signs were right there in front of them all that day, the whole City Council and mayor. Griggs and Hunt saw the danger. The rest of them closed their eyes, smiled and blew right on by. That’s how this happened. That’s who is to blame.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze