Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Durham Parking Deck Problems: Who Knew When?

Following the headline:

Baker defends silence on garage
the Durham Herald Sun reported today
City Manager Patrick Baker is defending his decision not to alert the public that a city-owned West Chapel Hill Street parking deck was in danger of collapse despite learning about its structural weakness in late August.

At a City Council work session Tuesday, Baker said he didn't think it was essential to go public about the problem when he first learned of it because engineers, while cautioning the deck was vulnerable to a partial collapse, weren't recommending its immediate closure.

"We were told to limit access of vehicles to the upper portion, and that's what we did," he said. "We didn't feel the need to make a larger disclosure based on what we were already doing."

City Council members on Tuesday authorized $783,900 worth of emergency repairs to the parking deck, which is across Mangum Street from City Hall.

Officials say an examination earlier this year turned up cracks in 35 of the beams that hold up the deck's upper floors.

Administrators responded to the find in August by quietly imposing restrictions on the use of the top-most levels of the 280-space structure. They discouraged large vehicles -- anything over 4,000 pounds -- from parking there at all and recently posted more signs advising truck and sport utility vehicle drivers to use an adjoining surface lot.

Meanwhile, engineers went to work designing a repair. The plan now is to reinforce the beams with special high-strength carbon-fiber panels manufactured by a Swiss company. Installation should begin next month and be completed by March.

The engineers' initial warning, relayed to the city in June, said the weakened beams could shear without warning. A follow-up report in August said one or more beams could fail near their connection points with the decks' walls, causing "a localized floor collapse."

Baker said he decided against closing the 37-year-old deck after talking to the engineers, who work for the Houston-based Walter P. Moore engineering firm.

The conversation occurred only weeks after a bridge in Minneapolis carrying an interstate highway over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people.

Baker said he asked the engineers whether the city had "Minneapolis across the street, yes or no," and whether officials needed to close the deck immediately.
"The answer was, 'You don't need to close the deck now, but we do need to engineer the repairs for the deck quickly,' " he said.

The need for repairs of some sort was no surprise. Officials hired Walter P. Moore over the winter to begin designing a renovation they'd figured on conducting in 2009, and had previously secured voter approval for a bond issue that's supplying the necessary funds.

The discovery of the cracked beams occurred as Walter P. Moore staffers were getting started on their design. The engineers submitted their initial report in June, but city officials didn't review it until August.

The delay came because the General Services Department project manager assigned to supervise the renovation resigned in March. Officials decided to put the project on hold until a replacement project manager joined the city payroll at the end of July.

The replacement, Chad Humphrey, was assigned to the deck project in mid-August and learned of the engineers' warning as he was getting up to speed. Baker said he first learned of the problem on Aug. 24.

The contractor hired to oversee the repairs, Beatty Balfour, initially balked at the idea of using the carbon-fiber reinforcement plates because the technology is proprietary and it is difficult to secure competitive prices for it.

But to ensure that the work gets done quickly and is done the way engineers want it, city officials elected to waive both the usual bidding requirements and Durham's own insistence that a share of all its construction work goes to minority-owned firms.

Elected officials had no trouble on Tuesday reaching consensus on the need to order the repairs, although they alluded to the possibility that the find might affect the as-yet theoretical possibility of selling the deck to a private-sector developer.
That’s the H-S story in full.

I posted the full story because it gives you an idea of what Durham City government is like.

Questions:

Why is the public only being told of this extremely serious and costly problem after the election?

When did Durham’s Mayor Bill Bell first learn of the parking deck problems?

Did he know about them during his recent re-election campaign and tell the public nothing?

What did Baker and Bell say to each other when Baker disclosed the problems to Bell?

When did the other members of the City Council learn about the problems?

Baker, on the one hand, claims there’s so little risk of a collapse that there was no need to disclose the problems to the public until now. On the other hand “city officials elected to waive both the usual bidding requirements and Durham's own insistence that a share of all its construction work goes to minority-owned firms.”

Is anyone fooled by Baker’s claim?

The Raleigh News & Observer also reported on the story leading off with a headline that must have pleased Baker:
Durham to fix cracks in deck
The N&O’s story really adds nothing to the H-S story except for this by Baker:
Asked why he didn't tell the public about the problems with the deck, Baker said, "There was nothing to disclose. We didn't feel the need to make a larger deal out of it than it was."
If there’s a city managers association that gives a Contempt for the Public Award, I nominate Patrick Baker.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the editorial writers at the H-S and N&O, say about the latest example of how Durham City government works.

It's very likely one or both papers will not ask tough questions about who knew what when and why the public wasn’t told of the danger, so individual citizens could make their own decisions on whether to risk using the parking deck instead of Baker making in for them.

Final item: I wonder what thought Baker gave to the safety of city employees, including fee collectors and janitorial staff, who work many hours each day at the parking deck?

4 comments:

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

As an engineer myself, I wonder at the advice that Baker got from the City's engineer.

Unless there's something missing from the story, the news Baker had from the engineer wasn't just casual.

"The engineers' initial warning, relayed to the city in June, said the weakened beams could shear without warning. A follow-up report in August said one or more beams could fail near their connection points with the decks' walls, causing "a localized floor collapse."

But between engineer and City, it seemed sufficient to keep some - not all - traffic off the upper floors. That doesn't seem to square up with the initial June warning, nor with the August report.

Is the engineer so confident in his ability to predict the behavior of an obviously damaged structure under load that she can just recommend that heavy vehicles go elsewhere, and it's free-for-all time for the small fry?

Not to natter on and on, I'd worry myself sick about such a recommendation - think major liability exposure to both City and Engineer in case of injury or damage following this knowlege. In fact an Errors and Omissions policy may have an exclusion of any coverage for such a judgement and recommendation.

But I don't have all the facts (it IS the H-S after all), and greater minds than mine no doubt rule the roosts at the City of Durham and its consultants. I still cringe while thinking of what's being said at their respective insurance agencies, though.

Anonymous said...

So, two thoughts:

1> someone ignores the flags and parks a large truck up there to keep it out of the way. A load of kids are in the parking deck, having come back from "kids voting." Patrick Baker is .... what?

2> we just bought non-standard expensive one-vendor parts to bulk up a parking garage? Isn't that like putting racing tires on a Pinto?

-AC

Anonymous said...

Baker has done a lot of bad things. This is not one of them.

Piling on diminishes the importance of what he has indeed done wrong. Makes you look petty. Just saying!

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

Baker's casual approach to a public safety issue is at the opposite end of the spectrum from another example in the State of Washington.

The ferry Quinault was found in drydock to have pits (probably from saltwater corrosion) in its steel hull. The State Transportation Secretary removed it from service immediately, just in time for the Thanksgiving traffic.

For good measure, she did the same for three other ferries in Quinault's class, with no evidence reported of their hull condition.

By her standards, Baker should have shut down the whole parking garage, and without further inspections, all others of the same sort of construction.

Newspaper reports of public works problems, of course, are plagued by the sort of journalists who rarely understand the vulgar physical details of building or boat construction - so we have to take them with a grain of salt.