Review of Circumstances Relating to the Collapse of the John Day River Bridge on Interstate Route 80N in the State of Oregon, Bureau of Public Roads and Corps of Engineers (Civil Functions)

B-144887: Published: Dec 19, 1966. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 1966.

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As a result of congressional interest, the General Accounting Office has made a review of the circumstances relating to the collapse of the John Day River Bridge on Interstate Route 80N in the State of Oregon. The review was made pursuant to the Budget and Accounting Act, 1921 (31 U.S.C. 531), and the Accounting and Auditing Act of 1950 (31 U.S.C. 67) and was directed primarily to the activities and responsibilities, as they affected construction of the John Day River Bridge, of the State highway department; the Corps of Engineers, Department of the Army; and the Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce.

The bridge was designed and constructed under the supervision of the Oregon State Highway Department under a contract with the Corps of Engineers, Department of the Army, Because Federal-aid highway funds were involved, the Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce, in accordance with the requirements of Federal-aid highway legislation, reviewed and approved the construction plans and specifications and concurred in the award of the construction contract. The bridge, which was completed in September 1963 at a cost of about $2,400,000, collapsed about 15 months later on December 22, 1964, as a result of scouring of the stream bed around and below the footings of pier 3, one of the bridge supports, during extreme flooding conditions. The footings for pier 3 had been established on compacted sand and gravel approximately 14 feet above bedrock, contrary to the original contract requirement that the bridge piers be founded upon bedrock. The decision to change the elevation and foundation material for the pier 3 footings was made while the work was underway and did not affect footings for other piers of the bridge, which had been established directly on bedrock or on piles driven to bedrock as planned. The reports of investigations of the bridge collapse by the Bureau, the State highway department, and an independent consulting firm all support the conclusion that the bridge was adequately designed in accordance with good practice, and that if the footings for pier 3 had been founded on bedrock, as designed, the pier would not have collapsed even under the extreme flooding conditions experienced. The Bureau division office, which has the responsibility for reviewing and approving all changes, was not made aware of the change to place pier 3 footings on a sand and gravel foundation about 14 feet above the planned elevation until about 1-1/2 months after the footing had been poured. The State did not notify or obtain approval from the Bureau before the change was made, and there were certain misunderstandings principally because the memorandum of understanding between the Corps and the Bureau did not clearly define each of the agency's responsibilities. Although we have no basis for knowing whether an independent and thorough Bureau evaluation of the contract revision would necessarily have resulted in a decision not to allow the change to remain, we found that the Bureau relied on what it thought was a thorough review by the Corps and did not attempt to independently evaluate the change, when it was first in a position to do so, after the change took place. We proposed that the Federal Highway Administrator and the Chief of Engineers, to avoid future misunderstandings concerning agency responsibilities in reservoir highway relocation projects in which Federal-aid highway funds are involved, revise their memorandum of understanding to more clearly define the respective responsibilities, and limitations therein, of each agency, and that the memorandum be brought to the attention of responsible field officials of both agencies along with such interpretive instructions as are necessary to highlight the significance of the changes.

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