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A span of failures

Washington County bridges by Mike Masterson | May 12, 2015 at 2:41 a.m.

Well, after a few months, it's finally official: Employees and supervisors at Washington County's Road Department failed to follow engineers' plans in constructing at least three county bridges. Why, you ask? Apparently because building them the-seat-of-their-pants way was, well, just easier.

Such a "that'll-do" approach has thrown the safety of those three spans into question and raised serious concerns about every bridge in the county.

This finding, my friends, is wholly unacceptable on every level, especially when the county must rely on its untrained, ill-equipped and unqualified self rather than private companies to properly construct these vital bridges.

How could such an epic failure have happened?

Engineers drew up specific designs that were ignored by the public employees who were supposed to carry them out. Workers who answer ultimately to elected County Judge Marilyn Edwards.

The three-person investigative team consisting of Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, County Assessor Russell Hill and private engineer Carl Gales spent a couple of weeks looking into the incomplete Stonewall Bridge near Prairie Grove and the Harvey Dowell Bridge. In the process they interviewed 16 current and previous road department employees, examined stacks of records and ultimately found the concrete and steel rebar were incorrectly installed at both bridges.

Reporter Dan Holtmeyer also reported another revelation. The 50-foot bridge across the Illinois River on Bethel Blacktop Road near Farmington (the last one constructed that compares with Stonewall and Dowell) got the same shabby mistreatment.

As a result, the bridges have deteriorated far more rapidly than they would had they been built properly; voids already are appearing in the support walls and pillars of all three bridges.

And Holtmeyer reports the Dowell and Bethel Blacktop bridges also are showing noticeable cracks. They also have narrower lanes than were designed, creating a potential safety issue for traffic.

So who was actually at fault for this unbelievable mess? Who signed off to say the completed bridges had been built correctly? Turns out the report contained a mishmash of excuses ranging from inadequate training and equipment, bewilderment over who was responsible for what, and a culture within the road department that discouraged complaints.

I can just hear the rationale now, can't you? "You fellas get busy and quit asking questions 'cause, by durn, this is the way we've always done it."

Madison, an attorney by profession, said everyone interviewed conceded plans for properly building the bridges weren't followed. She called it an organizational failure.

I'd modify that to badly disorganizational failure at every possible level.

In the news story, Madison said the most significant cause was because no one in the department was properly trained; they had neither the knowledge nor tools to do the job properly. She was kind in adding that workers seemed to want to do a good job but were regularly told the county always had operated in this haphazard manner when it came to bridges.

That included the former bridge supervisor who has since retired. Can't say as I blame him.

It's all but impossible for Edwards to avoid her responsibility in this, well, let's just call it what it is, scandal.

Madison laid that ultimate accountability on Edwards when she said no one in the county stopped to ask if they even had a crew capable of building a bridge as it was designed. "We just assumed it," she said.

Uh-oh, there's that much dreaded word that usually carries consequences. It also would have been helpful to have had guidance, the proper equipment and genuine leadership that knows how to follow an engineer's plan.

Meanwhile, back at the Stonewall Bridge, work has paused for the time being. The bridge crew's leader resigned during the investigation, as did two crew members. That left three workers who all refused to go to the site.

Edwards said she's lately been doing a lot of soul-searching. "I've got a lot of things to think about," she said, adding she wanted to review the report and the monumental failures very carefully. Can't say as I blame her. Yet analyze the obvious as she might, there's no way to cast fault elsewhere.

Washington County chose to build its own bridges with ill-equipped, untrained crews supervised by those too arrogant to be questioned. Sounds like it's long past time to begin putting these bridge jobs out for bid by private companies who actually build safe bridges by following the directions.

I appreciated what Justice of the Peace Harvey Bowman, a Springdale Republican on the quorum court, said: "I cannot imagine hiring an engineer to do a drawing of a bridge and then totally disregarding that drawing--that just blows my mind. There's all kinds of quality-control procedures out there that must be followed."


Mike Masterson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected]

Editorial on 05/12/2015

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