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Widespread cracks and leaks found in new 520 pontoons

More leaks have been discovered in the new pontoons for the 520 bridge being built in Aberdeen. (WSDOT Flickr file photo)

A new investigation has uncovered widespread cracks and leaking in the pontoons for the new $4.6 billion 520 Bridge are far greater than previously reported.

Last month, the Washington State Department of Transportation acknowledged two leaks inside the first six pontoons built for the new bridge. But KOMO TV reports it has discovered leaks in dozens of the interior compartments of the floating platforms after reviewing thousands of pages of public records and hours of video inspections.

The report says unnamed WSDOT insiders say “they’ve never seen this many leaks and what they called “extensive cracking” in brand new pontoons.

WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond acknowledges there have been cracking and leaking problems with several pontoons, but disputes the allegations in the report.

“I’ve not heard from any of our employees or any of the contractor’s employees the assertions that the reporter says she heard,” Hammond said in an interview with Ross and Burbank.

“What we all know is every floating bridge that we’ve ever built, the concrete has cracks in it. And what is now being reported is I think a little bit of a stretch,” Hammond said

KOMO reports insiders worry the widespread leaking already undermines the structural integrity of the new bridge. The report says delays and repairs by the contractor Kiewit Construction have already cost taxpayers an additional $9 million

The report raises questions about the state’s deal with Kiewit, which is building the pontoons in Aberdeen under one contract while a second contract governs the construction of the bridge on Lake Washington.

While Kiewit in Aberdeen owes $10,000 for every day the pontoons are delayed, at the same time the contract requires the state to pay Kiewit $100,000 a day for delays. That means every late day, Kiewit nets an extra $90,000 even though the problems started with Kiewit’s other contract in Aberdeen.

But Hammond defends Kiewit, insisting many of the early problems were a result of changes ordered by the state, not incompetence by the company. And she’s adamant the state won’t pay for or accept the pontoons until they pass rigorous inspection.

“By and large Kiewit’s a great pontoon building company they know what they’re doing and I’ve encouraged all of our team to make sure they are monitoring every step of the way to make sure the quality of the product we get continues to be good,” Hammond said.

Hammond said she’s made a number of personnel and organization changes for the project in Aberdeen where the pontoons are being built, as well as moving engineering staff to Olympia to strengthen the project team. And she said she’s also reconvened an expert review panel to conduct additional analysis of pontoon design, repairs and construction management processes.

In the meantime, WSDOT officials also announced Thursday estimated costs to complete the project have lowered by $522 million because projected bids have come in below their original estimates. And WSDOT says it has finalized a $300 million federal loan for the next phase of construction, leaving the unfunded portion of the program at $1.4 billion, down from an estimated $2 billion in 2010.

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