MUCH hope for a new burst of civic pride and enthusiasm rests on the grand new Maumee River Crossing rising majestically from massive structures of concrete and steel over I-280. But getting to that day has become a riskier venture than anybody anticipated.
The single largest construction project in the history of the Ohio Department of Transportation represents a signature turning point for many Toledoans hopeful that a spectacular cable suspension bridge will spark renewed interest in its home city.
However, serious safety issues and quality control problems have understandably tempered local enthusiasm with a creeping fear that this is a star-crossed project.
Four construction workers died in February when a truss crane collapsed at the site.
Now another mishap at the bridge has rekindled local concern about how safely the project is being built and how secure it will ultimately be upon completion. Adding to the apprehension is the nature of the second significant equipment failure.
Work with the truss crane, a twin to the one that collapsed last winter, had been stopped for eight months. Just hours after it resumed work last week on the bridge's East Toledo approach spans, one of its telescoping support legs fell out as it was being lowered into place atop a bridge pier.
This time, miraculously, no one was injured during the mid-day incident. The structure fell onto a temporary catwalk around the pier below. But officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation lost all confidence in the equipment custom-built for the project by Paolo de Nicola of Italy and ordered it removed from the project.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will investigate what went wrong on the surviving crane, just as it did on the identical one that buckled and fell during an identical span assembly operation. After five months of studying the February tragedy, OSHA blamed Fru-Con for failing to make sure that the behemoth cranes used to assemble bridge spans were adequately anchored during the repositioning process known as launching.
The second crane accident also occurred during launching preparations. Fru-Con challenged OSHA's findings from February and appealed the agency's proposed $280,000 fine against it. Following the new setback, the company may want to reconsider the vigor of its defense. It said it is exploring options to proceed with the project with alternative equipment.
But now - rightly or wrongly - doubt has been firmly planted about the primary contractor's commitment to safety. Only a month after the deadly crane accident, inspectors discovered defective concrete in the central pylon of the bridge designed to hold the cables that will support the span's six traffic lanes.
Now there's another disabled, 900-ton crane that needs to be removed from the construction site because officials have decreed it too risky to use any more.
At one time this massive project boasted a glittering safety record and was actually a year ahead of schedule. Now Fru-Con hopes it can finish the job by its contractual deadline of October, 2006. Otherwise it could owe a penalty of $20,000 a day until completion.
Let's hope the desire to keep pushing forward on the bridge to avoid costly overruns doesn't supersede safety precautions or material construction standards. There's a lot riding on those expectations.
Let's also hope a project billed as the biggest in ODOT's history doesn't prove to be too big.
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