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Harris County Commissioners vote unanimously to change engineer of $962 million Ship Channel bridge

Construction on the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge was put on pause in early January after a third-party review found a possible structural issue.

HOUSTON — Harris County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to change the engineer of record on the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge after a review found one portion that had not yet been built contained a potential design flaw.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority hired an independent consultant, COWI North America, Inc., to review the design of the bridge. HCTRA deputy director John Tyler told KHOU 11 in January that COWI found the possible weakness in December 2019.

The design comes from FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc., the same company behind a Florida pedestrian bridge that collapsed in 2018, killing six people.

“My outmost priority is the safety of our residents," Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia wrote in a statement. "Had I not made this decision shortly after taking office, Harris County could’ve had a dangerous bridge with tens of thousands of vehicles traveling on it every day. Taking FIGG off this project was not a decision we took lightly, however it needed to be done. Potential delays in completion of the bridge should be minimal, but that’s a small price to pay to keep people safe for decades to come.”

KHOU has reached out to FIGG but we have not received a response. We will update the article when we get their statement.

The portion of the design in question is the curved portions of the pylon legs.

RELATED: Toll road authority pausing construction on Ship Channel Bridge to fix possible structural weakness

RELATED: NTSB: Miami bridge that collapsed and killed 6 had design errors

In January, HCTRA deputy director John Tyler told KHOU 11 the issue was the pylons were not stiff enough to support the "bridge deck," the surface cars drive on.

"The pylon itself is a serious element within the bridge structure. It just needs to be done right," Tyler said in an interview with KHOU 11 in January.

HCTRA paused construction on the bridge in January.

FIGG issued a statement following the pause:

"FIGG Bridge Engineers throughout the past 42 years of serving communities across the nation work diligently to ensure project success. It is typical for two independent engineers to have some differences and we are working collaboratively to satisfy both COWI’s and FIGG's reviews of the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge Replacement Project. FIGG is pleased to work with HCTRA and their independent engineering consultants and contractor to provide a final project that is a point of function and pride within the community.”

On July 14, 2020, the Federal Highway Administration suspended and proposed to debar FIGG Bridge Engineers—the firm that designed the FIU pedestrian bridge—for a period of 10 years.

"FHWA is taking these actions to protect the public interest based on the firm’s conduct related to the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse," the Highway Administration wrote in a correspondence with the U.S. Department of the Inspector General.

FIGG may contest the Agency’s actions as part of the suspension and debarment process

FIGG also designed a new bridge to be built in the Corpus Christi area, which TXDOT put on pause while it reviewed findings from the Miami bridge collapse to see if any findings applied to any TXDOT projects.

TXDOT later instructed Flatiron/Dragados LLC (FDLLC), the developer of the US 181 Harbor Bridge Replacement Project in Corpus Christi, to remove FIGG Bridge Engineers Inc. (FIGG) from any future work on the main spans of the project

The bridge is HCTRA's largest project to date, estimated to cost $962 million. It is paid by people who pay tolls on Harris County's toll roads.

A county official tells KHOU that so far, Harris County has paid FIGG $27,299,105.84 as of August 6. The county still owns the design and drawings. Overall, to all contractors and crews, the county has paid roughly $417 million.

That official said the county will have to negotiate with the new engineer on costs to finish the project, including getting more materials and hiring manpower. 

At the end, the county official expected it could cost more than the original $962 million, but a final cost has not been worked out yet.

The county official expects the commissioners to vote on the new engineer during the next meeting in September.

You can see the progress on the HCTRA's construction cameras.

HCTRA began the design of the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge in 2015, and the project began in March 2018. 

A county official expects that the project, which was scheduled to be done in 2024, will likely be done in 2025, if all negotiations go smoothly.