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Misplaced offramp a costly mistake for state

Post by Kim Bradford on June 28, 2010 at 6:16 pm with No Comments »
June 28, 2010 6:16 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The state Department of Transportation erred twice in building – and now rebuilding – an offramp on state Route 16.

The biggest mistake: Engineering problems that led a contractor to build an offramp in the wrong place. The runner-up: Not being more forthcoming with the taxpaying and traveling public about the error.

Transportation officials acknowledged Monday what is now obvious: That crews are in the midst of tearing apart and lowering the recently completed eastbound offramp to Sprague Avenue.

A contractor built the ramp in the wrong place – because the state told it to. State engineers forgot to account for a third lane of the eastbound mainline, largely because the department had split design work between two teams – one for the eastbound lanes and one for the westbound lanes.

To avoid a second closure of Sprague Avenue, the eastbound offramp was included in the contract for the westbound work now underway. But no one from the eastbound design team apparently told the westbound engineers to account for an additional lane, and the westbound team apparently didn’t ask.

Paula Hammond, the state secretary of transportation, said Monday a review is under way to determine exactly what went wrong.

It appears that the blunder can be at least partly attributed to confusion resulting from a scramble for federal stimulus dollars. In its rush to qualify for the money, the state reassigned employees who should have been checking for inconsistencies in the Highway 16 plans to working on the Interstate 5 HOV lanes in north Pierce County.

Mistakes happen, although rarely are they this big (a fix will cost taxpayers $890,000) or this glaring.

Kevin Dayton, the transportation department’s administrator for this region, said he couldn’t recall ever having to rebuild something under similar circumstances in his 27 years with the state.

So why did it take a tipster calling a television station for the public to find out? Why did the state Department of Transportation repeatedly tell The News Tribune – as recently as three weeks ago – that the Highway 16 project was going well?

The state Department of Transportation knew last fall that the offramp had been built in the wrong place. It has known since February that the fix would require tearing up the pavement, taking apart the structure and lowering the earthern portion 12 feet.

The department did include a reference to the mistake in a project update it posted online in December. But not until the pavement was in rubble and reporters were calling did the department truly come clean about the scope of the problem.

Hammond acknowledged Monday that the agency failed and will recommit to telling the public both the good and the bad. She also said additional reviews and oversight should help prevent similar engineering gaffes in the future.

Here’s hoping she’s right. Taxpayers’ money is on the line. So too is the Department of Transportation’s credibility.

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