Harris County fires designer of $1 billion Houston Ship Channel bridge Tuesday; $417 million already spent

Potentially millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted over a bridge that’s been under construction for years.

HOUSTON – Harris County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to fire FIGG Bridge Engineers from the nearly $1,000,000,000 Houston Ship Channel Bridge Replacement Project.

FIGG was hired in 2013. The finished design was submitted in 2017. Construction started in 2018. A bridge in Florida designed by FIGG collapsed and killed six people in 2018. Last month, the Federal Highway Administration suspended FIGG from participating in federally funded projects.

The current Ship Channel Bridge opened to traffic in 1982. The replacement bridge was scheduled to be completed by 2024, but most construction stopped in January after an independent engineering firm identified “significant” design flaws.

The county has already spent $417 million so far.

Commissioners will vote on a replacement design firm on the next court date.

Harris County Toll Road Authority Timeline:

Harris County first hired FIGG Bridge Engineers in 2013 for $4.25 million, according to a Harris County Toll Road Authority timeline of events. The firm was paid $20.4 million in 2015 for final design services.

The final design for the project was submitted to Harris County in June 2017. Commissioners Court awarded the contract to build the bridge to Ship Channel Constructors in January 2018.

The Florida International University Miami pedestrian bridge, designed by FIGG, collapsed on March 15. HCTRA approved SCC to “begin work” on the Houston bridge four days later, according to the HCTRA timeline.

In November, the same month new leadership took over in Harris County, including a new judge and new commissioner in precinct two, where the project is located. A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report said the Florida bridge had design flaws.

Four months later, in March 2019, Commissioners Court hired COWI Engineering Firm to conduct an independent review of the Ship Channel Bridge Project design, according to the HCTRA timeline.

In July 2019, OSHA concluded that the Florida bridge designed by FIGG “had structural design deficiencies that contributed to the collapse EOR (Engineer of Record: FIGG) should have known.”

In October 2019, an NTSB report blamed FIGG and others for the Florida bridge collapse: “the probable cause of the… collapse was the load and capacity calculation errors made by FIGG Bridge Engineers.”

The final NTSB report was published in November 2019.

In January 2020, HCTRA paused construction on “certain aspects” of the Ship Channel Bridge after COWI informed the county that it found 21 “significant” design flaws with the Houston bridge.

The full COWI report was submitted to Harris County Commissioners Court on March 10, 2020. The construction pause is extended indefinitely, but FIGG stayed on as bridge designer.

On July 14, 2020, the FHWA suspended FIGG Bridge Engineers and proposed a 10-year debarment or suspension period.