Cuomo Bridge project director attacks report raising questions about bolts in construction
In 2016, the NY Thruway Authority spent $1 million on a team of experts to investigate the failed bolts used to build the bridge. A recent inspection showed "no additional bolt failures of concern."
The project director for the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge construction on Monday attacked as “misleading and erroneous” a report that raises new questions about faulty bolts used in the building of the Tappan Zee replacement.
“First and foremost, the bridge has been and continues to be safe for the traveling public,” project director Jamey Barbas said in a statement issued by the New York State Thruway Authority on Monday.
Barbas said in 2016 the Thruway Authority spent $1 million to hire a team of experts after discovering bolts used to secure girders on the new bridge had failed. Hundreds of bolts were tested.
“Prior to opening the bridge in August 2017, the experts concluded that the safety of the bridge was in no way compromised,” Barbas said.
“In addition to the extensive testing and analysis already performed, the entire structure is routinely inspected and monitored, and during our most recent biennial inspection, we found no additional bolt failures of concern,” Barbas added.
In 2018, The Journal News/lohud.com and other news outlets reported that the New York State Attorney General was investigating claims that workers tried to conceal the fact that steel bolts broke apart during construction of the $3.9 billion bridge.
At the time, Tappan Zee Constructors, the consortium that built the bridge, said its own testing showed “there is not an issue with the bolts.”
But in a story published Sunday, the Albany Times-Union raised new questions about the attorney general’s investigation.
The report cited statements made by a safety manager who recorded conversations with workers at an Albany County port where the bridge was being assembled.
“The conversations appeared to confirm that the contractor's team had been hiding the matter from the Thruway Authority and its inspectors, who were a mix of state investigators and private contractors,” the Times-Union report said.
The state inspector general also investigated the allegations.
In a statement issued Monday, Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro said investigators reviewed thousands of documents and listened to “audio of conversations between individuals who were involved in trying to conceal the replacement of bolts.”
The inspector general shared its findings with the attorney general’s office but said it was legally prohibited from disclosing details of its probe.
Times Union editor Casey Seiler defended the news outlet's reporting and said the Thruway Authority and others were given an opportunity to respond before the story was published.
“The Times Union stands by its reporting, which the Thruway Authority is mischaracterizing: At no point does our story suggest the Thruway Authority was involved in the alleged cover-up by employees of Tappan Zee Constructors," Seiler said.
"Our reporting does, however, raise significant questions about the thoroughness of the subsequent investigation by the state Inspector General’s office and the Thruway Authority that served as the basis for the Attorney General’s handling of the matter, and the scope of the relief obtained in the settlement of the whistleblower’s lawsuit."
Barbas, in an interview with The Journal News/lohud Monday, said after the concerns surfaced she hired a team of experts to make sure the bolts used on the bridge weren’t defective.
“I immediately took samples and bolts that were used on the bridge and hired the absolutely best experts in the world, spending over a million dollars on this assessment testing,” she said.
Hundreds of bolts were tested in laboratories to determine what was causing some to break.
In the end, more than a year’s worth of testing led to the conclusion that there was a manufacturing defect that led to some bolts breaking during tightening, Barbas said.
“Out of anything you manufacture there is going to be a certain percent that have defects,” Barbas said. “It’s not uncommon on jobs to have broken bolts but the percent has to be very small.”
Testing continued long after the defect issue was identified to determine if the bolts would break down over time or be further compromised by erosion, Barbas added.
“I think we were experimenting for a long time even beyond what we needed to, just to be sure we had all the effects,” she said.
In its most recent inspection, workers found just one bolt out of hundreds of thousands that had failed.
Barbas said that even if with a small amount of bolt failures, the bridge was built with numerous “redundancies” that would prevent a collapse.
“It’s not in the realm of possibility,” Barbas said. “Even if one connection is compromised, it doesn’t fail the girder system because the load is shared with other girders ... If anything happens to one girder it doesn’t fall down.”
The Thruway Authority did not pick up the tab for the testing.
“The cost was not borne by the Thruway Authority,” she said. “It’s not the taxpayers’ money. It’s not the toll-payers’ money.”
Tappan Zee Constructors defended its work on the bridge and said it did its own testing to determine that the high-strength bolts on the bridge would not fail or erode over time.
“We want to make one thing clear,” a TZC spokeswoman said in a statement. “TZC unequivocally stands by the quality of our work and the safety of the bridge. The construction companies that make up TZC and its bridge designer have built many of the major crossings in the New York area, including the former Tappan Zee Bridge, and have a long history of excellence.”