“It is not going to happen again" ODOT says of construction conundrum

Patches on an Oklahoma interstate highway can be seen. (KOKH)

More than a dozen cars were immobilized and the Department of Public Safety said the project was a safety hazard to drivers traveling on I-35. The construction along the interstate between Memorial Road and 2nd street in Edmond has been in progress for months, and it has caused more than just the normal construction-related headaches.

In June, FOX 25 revealed the internal records from the Department of Transportation that showed the damages to vehicles caused when a temporary fix failed along the project. Our investigation uncovered a letter from the DPS general counsel claiming the project was putting the public at risk due to construction debris and potholes. The Department of Transportation claimed heat caused the temporary patch asphalt to buckle, but FOX 25 continued digging into the records to see how the failed repairs were approved.

Our latest investigation found that the records and notes kept by field inspectors often did not match up with the computerized records kept by ODOT for the interstate construction project.

“We took a look at all the discrepancies all the information that you provided us and we did find a few instances that we were in error,” said Brian Taylor the ODOT division engineer in charge of the interstates that run through the metro area.

Taylor said in most cases the differences between the field notes and the official summary were due to transcription errors complicated by a lack of mobile technology that would allow field inspectors to immediately input their observations into the network system.

In other cases field notes of what work was performed were missing, yet on those same days the computer summary included a description of work that was performed.

FOX 25 asked if the lack of field notes caused ODOT to question if inspections were completed or if there was a concern about the accuracy of reporting because there was no source notes to complete the final report.

Taylor said after our questions he did his own investigation and is certain that field inspectors were in place and that the missing information could be explained by field diaries being left behind and notes being kept on other papers that may not have been saved.

As for the May 9 incident, ODOT said it responded as fast as possible once the pothole was reported.

“We terribly regret that the pothole created damage to the traveling public,” Taylor said.

So how did all the damage that happened to cars happen at all? The weather that day only reached a high of 88 degrees, which is not nearly as warm as Oklahoma highways are designed to withstand.

However, Taylor said it was determined no single cause was to blame. It was instead a combination of a warm up, traffic, heavy loads and the type of material used. In this case it was a type of asphalt known as “cold lay” which does not get hard like blacktop but remains “gooey.” Taylor said the contractor would have not known the cold lay asphalt could have collapsed.

“It was reasonable in that this patching material is the same patching material we use at the Department of Transportation every day all the way across the state,” Taylor told FOX 25. However, when ODOT uses the “cold lay” it is for smaller projects. In this case a large amount of material was used to cover a big area that was deeper than most ODOT uses.

“We're not using that temporary asphalt any longer in that size of patch within an urban area,” Taylor said. “It is not going to happen again.”

ODOT said the contractor has also decided to stop using all its temporary panels. Besides asphalt they were putting temporary pre-cast concrete panels in place. However, Taylor said those panels were potentially causing damage to the permanent panels they were placed next to and also creating unsafe conditions.

From here on out, Taylor said the contractor will be putting new concrete panels in place which are installed an inch or more above the surface level and then grinded down by a subcontractor almost immediately to avoid large bumps for drivers.

Taylor also said that FOX 25 accurately pointed out that while the field notes pointed out potholes, any indication of problems were left out of the computer record. There is no notation of the more than dozen accidents that happened during that day.

ODOT did shut down the lane and because it was during the day the contractor was charged $20,000 per hour until the lanes reopened.

As far as the other injuries reported as being caused by construction debris, Taylor said he does not believe that to be the case. ODOT’s investigation found landscape bricks along the roadway. Taylor said that the driver who was injured by concrete flying through his windshield was likely hit with one of those bricks which fell off someone’s unsecured load. He said there was no evidence that the construction site was left a mess.

The construction project will continue to be rough going for drivers. The construction is just a bandage; a symptom of a much larger problem.

“We are a small state when it comes to population but the size of our highway system puts us between California and Florida,” Taylor said.

Put simply, the state does not have the money to replace the road. The patch work on I-35 is intended to make the road last another decade when hopefully the state will allocate enough money to properly replace the roadway. Taylor said ODOT has lost more than $800 million since 2010 due to state funding cuts.

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