As more 520 pontoons head out, questions about quality remain

SEATTLE -- Two more concrete pontoons meant for the new 520 floating bridge are set to leave Grays Harbor this week.

Officials from the Washington State Department of Transportation are optimistic that the problems with leaks in the first set of pontoons have now been fixed. But public records show the second set of pontoons still have some cracks, and leaks were also discovered after the pontoons were floated out.

Pontoon construction in Aberdeen has hit its stride, with one pontoon from the third construction cycle now on its way to Lake Washington. Others are lined up in Grays Harbor, waiting their turn.

All the pontoons have the engineering fix designed to overcome a flaw that previously led to serious leaks. But questions still remain about quality.

Records obtained by the Problem Solvers show that not a single pontoon from the second construction cycle was leak free.

"The information that I've gotten through our regular meetings is that they're well within expectations and there's not been any alarm sounded," said Keith Metcalf, WSDOT's deputy chief engineer.

After that May inspection, contractor Kiewit oversaw repairs to the pontoons. Tom Horkan, the director of construction services, was asked if the pontoons still have problems with leaking.

"No, not significant. We are continually monitoring them," Horkan said.

Ongoing problems with cracks and leaks in the first set of pontoons led to expensive repairs. Two were hauled to dry dock this summer, and the other four are still awaiting repairs.

In light of those leaks, Horkan was asked why WSDOT didn't force the contractor to tear out the cracked panels.

"That's an engineering call we make, as to shall we repair this or have it replaced, and what would be the best quality product out of that. And given the quality of repairs we've seen, that's what we've chose to do in this case," Horkan said.

WSOT officials could not say how many of the pontoons from the second batch still have leaks -- or "weeps" -- after the repairs. There is, however, some good news about the project. The repair and delay costs were originally slated to reach $378 million, but that number has now dropped by $30 million.