A large portion of concrete panels and columns contained cracks, some concrete quality certification was fraudulent, and much of the structure is susceptible to failure due to water damage. Sound familiar? It may refer to the Florida condominium high-rise that collapsed — as well as the Silver Line Phase 2 metro project in Northern Virginia.
Labor Day doesn’t only bring another missed deadline for the rail project, which had been scheduled for handoff to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority by the holiday weekend. It also underscores the continued failure to address serious project construction and safety issues.
While the precise causes of the tragic and deadly Champlain Towers South cave-in in Surfside, Fla., this summer are yet to be determined, there are thus far eerie similarities to structural deficiencies identified in the metro rail project in Fairfax and Loudon counties.
The project has been plagued by multi-year delays and multi-million dollar cost overruns, but it is the construction quality that should be raising the most alarming red flag for Metro, which is overseeing construction.
In the case of the Surfside condominium, an engineer pointed out cracking and crumbling of concrete columns three years before its collapse. It was waterproofing, used in part to address deficient concrete, that experts say may be partly responsible for the disaster and some are placing the blame on the tower’s condo board.
In the case of the Silver Line metro, it is a similar waterproofing that is being used to address 342 cracks in 184 concrete panels in stations along the route that were identified last year by the metro’s Office of Inspector General. In all, the inspector noted that addressing the structural issue with periodic waterproofing is “not a perfect solution.” The not-so-perfect waterproofing that will need to be applied every five years is a far cry from the specifications that the project have a durability of 100 years. Raising further alarm is a whistleblower suit alleging that test records on the concrete panels were fraudulent and that unapproved materials were used to hide flaws, all leading to a “significant safety hazard” for riders and threatening parts of the project’s structural integrity due to water erosion.
It is not only faulty concrete walls that raise a safety alert. Concrete rail ties and concrete columns supporting the rails have been found to be faulty, as has some switching equipment and the tracks themselves.
There are many lessons to learn from the Phase 2 Silver Line construction, from the advantages of using labor agreements that ensure a well-trained and skilled workforce to the use of reputable contractors, but it is now the safety of metro riders that must be paramount.
As the story of Surfside continues to unfold, one thing is certain: the danger was apparent and nothing was done. Now many are dead. We know the shortcomings of the metro rail project and, with the myriad of concerns, one has to question whether there are yet to be revealed safety issues. Unlike Surfside, we still have time to act before the rail line is put into service.
The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority — which has managed the project — and Metro must ask themselves if they’re willing to roll the dice with a band-aid approach, rather than taking a more serious look at remedying deficiencies. The line was originally scheduled to open for business in 2018. It is not as if a rush is needed to meet the project schedule. We are three years past that time. It is time to consider tearing down faulty portions of the project and rebuilding them the right way. If, heaven forbid, there is a structural failure on the Silver Line there will be no condominium board to point the finger at — just the officials who decided to accept a faulty product.
Dennis L. Martire is a former member of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority and vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents approximately 40,000 workers predominantly in the construction industry throughout Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.