What is next for $1 billion Houston bridge after county fired bridge designer?

HOUSTON – The most expensive single project in Harris County history is in limbo after commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to fire the designer of the $1 billion Houston Ship Channel Replacement Bridge. 

A vote to hire a replacement designer is scheduled for the next Harris County Commissioners Court in September.

Selecting FIGG Bridge Engineers 

Harris County hired FIGG Bridge Engineers to design the bridge in 2013 and approved the final design in 2017, Ed Emmett said, who served as county judge at the time.

“The decision to hire FIGG initially by the (Harris County) Toll Road Authority was a reasonable thing to do,” he said. “They didn’t have any problems.” 

Since 1978, FIGG companies “have been pioneers in the bridge industry” with more than 420 design awards, the company says on its website.

Construction begins 

The same week construction began on the Houston bridge in March 2018, a bridge in Florida, also designed by FIGG, collapsed and killed six people. 

“The bridge collapse in Florida is what triggered everything but that was a whole different bridge,” Emmett said. “That was a mainly pedestrian bridge (that) fell onto a highway. So you couldn’t even assume at that point that that bridge collapse would have any impact on the massive project here.” 

New Leadership 

Emmett and other county leaders, including commissioner Jack Morman, who served in Precinct 2 where the bridge is located, left office in November 2018. Later that month, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted FIGG for design flaws in the Florida bridge.

Independent review 

In March 2019, Harris County hired engineering firm COWI to conduct an independent review of the Houston Ship Channel Bridge. One year later, COWI published a review, citing 21 “significant” design flaws.

A strongly worded memo submitted in September 2019 to Harris County Toll Road Authority and others by an engineering firm working with the bridge builder outlined “significant” design “omissions and deficiencies” that posed “a potential life safety issue to the public.” 

FIGG suspension and firing 

In July 2020, the Federal Highway Association suspended FIGG Bridge Engineers from participating in federally-funded projects and proposed a 10-year suspension. 

Then, Harris County commissioners voted to fire FIGG from the Houston project on Tuesday.

New Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said FHWA authorities had “forced” their hand. 

What’s next? 

Harris County Commissioners plan to hire a new bridge designer, likely COWI, the firm that conducted the independent review.

The project was supposed to be completed in 2024. However, construction on certain parts of the bridge paused in January 2020.

It is unknown how much further the project will be delayed.

“If this does get delayed by any significant turn of events,” Garcia said. “This is going to be out of the taxpayer’s pockets, so we have to be careful.”