Memo: DOT Officials Knew of Emergency Road Condition Months before Alerting Public

September 23, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Road ClosedOn June 25, the S.C. Department of Transportation announced that it was closing a three-tenths of a mile stretch of U.S. 76 in Laurens County on July 1 for emergency repairs and setting up a 31-mile detour. The road reopened for traffic six weeks later.

What most of the traveling public didn’t know then was the agency had known for more than three months prior to its announcement how dire shape the road was in, according to an internal department memo obtained recently by The Nerve.

In a March 18 memo to Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge, Jim Feda, the agency’s maintenance director, requested emergency contracting services for the U.S. 76 stretch near North Rabon Creek, after staff discovered during a recent inspection that slopes along the roadway were “failing at several locations.” The agency later said in a press release that it needed to repair three slope failures along the road caused by water intrusion within the embankment.

“These slope failures are of such severity that it warrants immediate repair or the road will have to be closed to traffic in the very near future,” Feda wrote in his March memo. “The road is currently open to all traffic. Unless the slopes and related drainage features are repaired and stabilized, they will continue to collapse and erode until the roadway itself collapses because it is no longer able to carry traffic loads.”

Feda noted that on average, 4,000 vehicles, 6 percent of which were trucks, travel that stretch daily.

Feda recommended that a “reputable and qualified geotechnical engineering consultant/roadway contractor team capable of performing this type of work be contacted to begin these repairs as soon as possible.” He added that the roadway could “require short term repairs to keep the road open until specific causes of the failures can be identified and a permanent solution can be implemented.”

The state’s procurement code allows agencies to make emergency procurements when there “exists an immediate threat to public health, welfare, critical economy and efficiency, or safety under emergency conditions.” The law says that such procurements “shall be made with as much competition as is practicable under the circumstances.”

In addition, another state law allows the transportation secretary in emergency situations to “employ contractors and others to perform construction or repair work” without the “formalities of advertising” for bids.

St. Onge, who was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011, approved the use of the emergency procurement on March 18, according to an information sheet provided to the Department of Transportation Commission for its July meeting. But the agency didn’t receive bids for the repair work until June 19; on June 20, a contract was awarded to Eagle Construction Co. in Newberry for a low bid of $1.53 million, the information sheet showed.

St. Onge gave his approval of the contract on July 2, according to the information sheet – the day after work began to repair the slopes along the highway.

Another commission information sheet obtained by The Nerve shows that DOT entered into an agreement with Columbia-based F&ME Consultants Inc. to “repair and stabilize severe slop failures and their related drainage features to prevent erosion and probable roadway collapse to several locations” on the U.S. 76 stretch.

That document said the basic agreement with F&ME was executed on July 26 – nearly a month after work already had begun on the repairs – and that with modifications, which were signed off by St. Onge on July 30, the cost of that contract was $481,452.

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to DOT chief spokesman Pete Poore about the project, seeking answers as to when the agency first became aware of the problems on the U.S. 76 stretch, why it waited at least three months to close the road despite deeming it an emergency situation, why it sought bids in an emergency situation, and the total cost of the project.

In an email response Friday afternoon, Poore said answers wouldn’t be ready until today, noting the responses “need to be obtained from two different offices at SCDOT HQ and one field office.”

(After this story was published, Poore in a written response this morning said the slope failure on the U.S. 76 stretch was discovered at the end of February, and that the agency “immediately began a daily monitoring process.”

“We would have closed the road earlier if the data collected during the monitoring process indicated significant movement such that we felt catastrophic failure may occur,” he said, adding, “The information collected during these daily surveys would quickly alert SCDOT so that, if necessary, action could be taken to ensure the safety of the motoring public while the design for the repair was being completed.”

As for seeking bids in an emergency situation, Poore replied, “The emergency procurement route allows us to take advantage of a streamlined procurement process by allowing us to contact potential firms directly, hold an on-site pre-bid meeting to discuss the project objectives, accept bids and enter into a contract with the lowest responsible bidder. … This allowed for the project to be completed during the summer with the least amount of disruption to the public.”)

The Nerve on Friday reported that the DOT Commission at its regular meeting on Thursday approved submitting a fiscal 2014-15 budget request that would be nearly $85 million over budget, with the difference to be covered with projected cash reserves.

DOT officials last week said record-setting rains over the summer caused $5.6 million in damage to 132 roads statewide, $4 million of which occurred in 11 Upstate counties. Poore was quoted then as saying the state had set aside $2.2 million for emergency road maintenance, and that the remainder of the damage costs caused by the rainfall would be covered with general maintenance funds.

In a press release announcing the reopening of the U.S. 76 stretch on Aug. 14, the agency said that despite the “continuing rainfall over the past six weeks, the contractor was able to complete the job on time.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.