Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 19, 2018

The political economy of a bridge collapse

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,corruption,disaster — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Like many urban-based universities, Miami’s Florida International University had a tendency to expand. With more than 50,000 enrolled undergraduate students—many of whom are Cuban-American—it is the fourth largest in the USA. In recent years, expansion took place geographically as well. After more than 4,000 students found housing on the other side of an 7-lane highway to the north of the main campus, the school decided to build a bridge across it. Since the highway was a major artery in Miami, the school decided to use Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) that avoided the detours that would have blocked the flow of the city’s commercial lifeblood. In ABC, the first step is to build the bridge on a remote construction site and then transport it to the destination where it will be installed in a day or two at most.

Here is the breathless come-on to investors about the benefits the bridge will bring:

Here is the celebratory inauguration of the installed bridge on March 10th:

And here is its collapse on March 15th that left 6 people in the cars beneath the 950 tons of concrete dead:

As it happens, FIU was not only enthusiastic about this particular application of Accelerated Bridge Construction but also about ABC in general, so much so that it created a department devoted to the technology (https://abc-utc.fiu.edu/) in 2010 missioned to “reduce the societal costs of bridge construction by reducing the duration of work zones, focusing special attention on preservation, service life, construction costs, education of the profession, and development of a next-generation workforce fully equipped with ABC knowledge.”

Two days before it collapsed, the lead engineer with the Figg Bridge Group, one of the two principal construction companies on the project left a voice mail indicating that he saw a crack in the bridge with an employee of the Florida Department of Transportation, who was out of the office  and did not hear the voice mail until after the bridge had collapsed. It is not clear that anything would have been done had he been in the office since the voice mail did not sound a particularly urgent note.

While the Florida Department of Transportation was out of the loop, FIU itself was not. At a meeting at 9am on March 15th between Figg employees, including the lead engineer, and school administrators, they were told that “that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge.” A couple of hours later the bridge would come crashing down.

This was not the first time Figg had supervised the construction of a collapsing bridge. In 2012, there was an accident that fortunately did not involve motorists or pedestrians beneath even though four workers suffered minor injuries. The company paid a miniscule fine and moved on.

Required by state law to undergo an independent review of the project, Figg selected the Louis Berger Group, an engineering firm that lacked pre-qualification credentials from the Florida Department of Transportation. A November 5th 2010 NY Times article by James Risen, however, suggested that this firm was especially pre-qualified to scam the people that hired it:

A New Jersey-based construction and engineering company has been hit with the largest fines ever imposed on a contractor working in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, after a whistle-blower revealed that the company had been overbilling the government.

The company, the Louis Berger Group, based in Morristown, N.J., will pay $18.7 million in criminal penalties and $50.6 million in civil penalties for overbilling the United States Agency for International Development for work in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. As part of the civil agreement, the company will pay $14.2 million of the civil penalty in the next 30 days and the balance over the next four years.

Figg’s partner on the project was Munilla Construction Management, a firm whose vice-president Pedro Munilla is a former attorney who was disbarred in 2001 for violating trust accounts, which conceivably might have meant conning his clients in the same way the Louis Berger Group conned tax-payers (not to say that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was not a con job to begin with.)

Pedro Munilla is a typical construction company wheeler-and-dealer. Last year he met with a a Chinese investor looking for U.S. acquisitions. Guess who was advising the investor: Paul Manafort. It’s a small world when corruption is involved. Munilla runs the firm with his four brothers who as might be expected were enthusiastic about Donald Trump.  Representing the brothers, Pedro Munilla had a meeting last June with Vice President Mike Pence to review the administration’s Cuba policies. The five brothers have ponied up more than $100,000 to the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, whose chief Mauricio Claver-Carone blogs at Huffington Post for what that’s worth.

The Munillas have also contributed heavily to Republican Party politicians both in Florida and in Congress. This kind of influence-peddling must have opened doors for a a lucrative $63.5 million contract from the Defense Department in 2016 to build a school on the U.S.-controlled Guantánamo Naval Base in eastern Cuba.

Locally, their payoffs to politicians has been worth it as well. In 2012 Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro voted to award a $25 million contract to Munilla for a test track for Metrorail cars while renting office space from the firm’s owners, county records show. Four of the brothers contributed the maximum campaign donation of $500 each to Barreiro, who was won his commission seat for a fifth time.

All of the brothers are FIU graduates so everything came together from a military-industrial-academic complex standpoint.

The Miami Herald, which has provided outstanding reporting on the bridge collapse, ran down the Munilla brothers’ record, which is as shoddy as Pedro Munilla’s legal career:

MCM construction sites, meanwhile, have been inspected eight times by the federal government since 2013 and fined on four occasions for violations worth more than $50,000. The company has also faced a slew of standard negligence and personal liability cases — typical in the industry. A contractual dispute with a subcontractor that walked off the job resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM; the subcontractor cited safety issues with the project, a $13.5 million bridge reconstructing project on Red Road.

Court documents from the lawsuit show that Southeastern Engineering Contractors left the job, citing structural problems and “arguable collapse” at the worksite because of the “failure of temporary sheet piles on the south bend of the site.” Attempts to reach attorneys representing both sides in that case were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach principal Pedro Munilla by cellphone.

This entire incident manages to touch all bases of the rotting capitalist system in the USA, both economically and politically.

To start with, what kind of university establishes a department with a single focus on Accelerated Bridge Construction? Isn’t a university supposed to provide general engineering courses that prepare a student for a career? The department chair is Atorod Azizinamini, who was honored by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change in 2015. Given the need to construct new bridges across the USA using a time-saving technology, including the replacement of the Tappan Zee bridge recently, you can understand why the big bourgeoisie would be thrilled by his innovation even if it just killed six people “accidentally”. After all, that’s the price of progress. Btw, remind me to not use the NY State Thruway the next time I go up to the Catskills since it crosses the Tappan Zee.

It also illustrates how influence-peddling can undermine the economic fabric of capitalist society itself even if benefits a particular corporation. Hasn’t this been the Achilles Heel of capitalism all along? Despite the libertarian, free market precepts shared by Republicans and Democrats alike (except for an outlier like Bernie Sanders), everybody knows that politicians are bought and sold. In a review of the Democrats who voted for a relaxation of the Dodd-Frank rules, it turned out that According to the Financial Times, the 12 Democrats behind the Crapo bill (aptly named after Mike Crapo, the Republican Senator who introduced it) receive a substantial percentage of their campaign donations from banks with just under $50 billion in assets—those, in other words, who will benefit from this deregulation.

Finally, it demonstrates that profits come before people. When shady construction companies collaborate with a university that serves as a vocational school for the technology they are utilizing and ignore obvious signs that peoples’ lives are endangered, that’s about as clear a sign as you will get about the decadence of this crumbling system.

Update from a Florida comrade:

From a union worker, explaining how “right to work” results in incompetent workmanship; in the recent tragic case in Florida, it got people killed:

For 30 plus years. I worked as a Concrete Form Carpenter. The media keeps saying they were doing a stress test when the bridge went down . The bridge deck was a cable stay deck instead of using Rebar, they used cables. So after the concrete is poured the cables are pulled tight. So these Idiots waited till the concrete was rock hard. When they pulled the cables they busted through the bottom deck. So down she goes.

The cables should been tightened before the rock turned hard but when the concrete was wet right after it was poured. I have worked in Florida, the companies hire anyone to work construction . The super down to the laborer. Unskilled people doing skilled labor. This is a right to work state.

Union Busting. Florida is a right to work state. No training. Crane Operators are not required have proof of any experience. It is a mess here. That is why I moved back to NY.

I have done bridge decks in the past. In Connecticut and New York state. I have never heard of a stress test. The media should inform them selves before issuing statements like that. They fucked up the cables should have been tightened before the concrete set up. When it is wet, a subcontractor should have been on site right after the pour and pulled the cables.

Before every concrete pour, the concrete is tested for water content and temp is taken. And core samples are taken to a lab. Were they are put in a press to test for strength. These idiots should have known better but here in Florida it is a right to work state. No Unions so the work force is unskilled. The contractors will hire anyone with a pulse.

I was trained by The United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Florida is a right to work state. No Unions, zero trained workforce. Idiots running these job sites all to save a dollar.

8 Comments »

  1. This is absolutely horrifying.

    The testimonial by the union-trained carpenter at the end is especially on point.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 20, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

  2. This is a horrible piece that mostly just re-states what the Miami Herald has already said combined with vaguely leftist rhetoric masquerading as analysis. It’s also filled with factual errors (e.g. FDOT had representatives at the meeting at FIU, ABC-UTC isn’t a university department but a research center, like dozens of others based at the university and is not just an FIU project) that could easily have been avoided by simply clicking the links in the article itself. Infrastructure, all infrastructure, is reflective of the society in which it is produced. In a capitalist society, infrastructure construction reflects capitalist interests. This is obvious and doesn’t need an essay to get across.

    If you wanted to talk about the role of the university in displacing the working class Nicaraguans who have called Sweetwater home for decades and how, despite residents talking about a bridge for a while, it was only when student housing aimed at rich students was built that anyone took it seriously then there may have been a point here. But that might have required some actual thought, research, and discussion with people from the area and not just speculation in the name of having something to say.

    Comment by Jozuė Malunaitis — March 20, 2018 @ 7:40 pm

  3. ABC-UTC isn’t a university department but a research center, like dozens of others based at the university and is not just an FIU project

    Oh, very interesting. Glad you could clarify that. I am so relieved to learn that FIU has no incestuous corporate ties.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 20, 2018 @ 7:53 pm

  4. It does, but at least get absolute basic info that’s easily checked right. Also, good job ignoring everything else I said.

    Comment by Jozuė Malunaitis — March 20, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

  5. What a funny little scold you are. I saw that you let my friend Noel Ignatiev have it too, along the same lines. I would call you a snot-nosed kid but I don’t want to be rude.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 20, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

  6. Off goes my hat for this excellent job of yours, Louis. Off and high.

    Comment by Néstor YouKnowMe — March 20, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

  7. Off my hat. Off and high. Of course when I read about the crash I immediately thought “Capitalist greed”. But your linking the dots job is outstanding here.

    Comment by Néstor Gorojovsky — March 20, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

  8. If all non union workers are “idiots” then we’re doomed.

    The vast majority of workers are not in unions. The workers in unions are repressed by a reactionary bureaucracy. The narrow craft union attitude has a lot to do with both of these facts.

    Comment by Rebase — March 21, 2018 @ 8:16 am


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