[UPDATE 4:15pm: Looks like Lindblom’s getting raked over the coals for this one. It’s been edited yet again.  The Seattle P-I managed to get the story right without all this hassle. Maybe it’s because the P-I doesn’t have a vendetta against Sound Transit?]

[UPDATE 2:57pm: The latest online version of this article is slightly less inflammatory, although still misleading up until paragraph 5.  Let’s hope this trend continues going into the print edition.]

These days, when I read a Seattle Times article about Sound Transit, I play a little game – I count the paragraphs before the fearmongering is replaced with the real story. Today I got to 6 before realizing that today’s installment is really about stretching the definition of the word “in.”

Lindblom’s story starts by describing the concrete columns that support Sound Transit’s trackway in Tukwila. The reader is led to believe that the columns are structurally unsound – most of us have seen construction, and are familiar with the concept of using rebar to strengthen concrete. A quick skim of the article is simply scary – this rebar doesn’t meet design specifications?

It turns out this isn’t about rebar at all. It’s about a steel casing, essentially a concrete pour form, for 12′ of the foundation depth (the foundation continues much deeper than that). This casing is left after the pour to add extra reinforcement. Discretionary reinforcement. From the Washington DOT Bridge Design Manual, Section 7.8.2:

“The volumetric ratio and spacing requirements of the AASHTO Guide Specification for LRFD Seismic Bridge Design for confinement need not be met. The top of shafts in typical WSDOT single column/single shaft connections remains elastic under seismic loads due to the large shaft diameter (as compared to the column). Therefore this requirement does not need to be met.”

Because these columns are big, this casing isn’t even actually necessary. There’s a highlight from “grayb” (which I assume is Bruce Gray) in the design memorandum (PDF) so kindly linked by the Seattle Times:

“Because the provision for confinement is discretionary and not prescriptive for large diameter piles, it is the designer’s conclusion that 36ksi steel is adequate for both [10′ and 12′] diameter casings.” [mine]

The headline and the article are blatantly overblown. The grade of steel used in the non-required casing for the columns is lower than it should be. The existence of the 50ksi requirement at all is (from the report) “a detailing exercise at the discretion of the design engineer,” not a structural issue.

You know what all this comes down to? Sound Transit’s engineers dot every I and cross every T, and a reporter that tries at every turn to smear the agency just gets caught with his pants down when he fails to read the reports he writes about.

48 Replies to “Substandard Reporting”

  1. BOOM! Lindblom Smackdown!

    Maybe if the Times did some objective reporting we would be more concerned about the loss of newspapers and lament the loss of actual objective reporting.

  2. I was waiting to see how long before your blog had a rebuttal. I could smell the BS on the original Seattle Times post, but I did not know the specifics.

    So thanks!

    But, still, from reading the comments on the Times site, its clear that the article had “Mission Accomplished”. That is to say, spreading fear and doubt. Its really to bad that we have such poor journalism now a days.

    1. Hee hee. Mission Accomplished indeed – Lindblom’s had to update his story twice today.

  3. I can’t wait for newspaper ad revenue to drop in the slow season later this summer! Too bad Lindblom didn’t beg for an online P-I job.

    1. just online only, and would as a result tend to lean more toward sensational writing

      The Christian Science Monitor is moving to online only this summer. As far as I know the National Inquirer is remaining in print. The Times is only trying to earn it’s place at the grocery counter.

    1. Sorry about that. I had a 2pm meeting and had to rush off. I’ll edit the post.

  4. My my, the comment thread in the Times post is quite nasty. Funny how people use the article to confirm whatever biases they have about transit, engineers, ST, and government spending. One reason engineers are conservative is because these kinds of mistakes happen all the time, and not just on government jobs.

    The steel — grade A36 (36 ksi) steel instead of Grade 50 (50 ksi) — still probably has a yield stress close to 50 ksi. If I skimmed the engineer’s report correctly, the max required stress is 38 ksi, and that’s probably conservative. Confining the lap splice is important, but this one’s fine.

    1. Tell me about it. I posted the link to Ben’s rebuttal here so we’ll see if any of those commenters will come over here and see what the report is actually about and not the Times “death scare” and the columns will fail crap they just pulled.

  5. ST’s guy initially told me there was concrete exterior to the casings, but diagrams in the engineering reports show that not to be correct, as you point out.

    I’m reworking the story, and we have a graphic that will show its proper role. Also will probably move up the fact that it’s still expected to function okay.

    Also, we have been saying all day that this does not involve the rebar — which is really the critical strengthening steel (besides the post-tensioning steel at the column tops, etc.).

    Thanks for the advice.

    Mike Lindblom
    Transportation Reporter

    To: Mike Lindblom (Author)
    Cc: Leon Espinoza (News Editor)
    Subject: Sound Transit Substandard Casings


    In your article on the substandard steel used on Link, I find it misleading to readers the way that you lead your story: “A supplier for Sound Transit’s light-rail project admitted this afternoon in federal court that he used substandard steel in some of the columns used to support the tracks.”

    You say in the article that the steel is not in the columns at all. Being what is in this application, basically concrete formwork, the steel is outside of the columns. I think that the lead as it is written implies that the structure is not as good because of the use of the incorrect preposition.

    This seems like fear-mongering, and I’d love to see this article revised.


    1. Yeah, that’s what the P-I originally posted. Interesting that they both get to use the same AP stories now. I wonder if that’s new?

      1. Um, virtually every newspaper subscribes to AP and can use their stories, online or in print. You’re seeing a lot more AP copy on the P-I site since they only have a few reporters.

  6. OMG. How is it that the Times always attracts every idiot out there? You got THeller writing in from Indiana, some guy named TSlick65 with an axe to grind from Boston….and then this guy, rawdibob…with a gem of pure stupidity:

    “Let me get this straight. Sound Transit over-designed the columns so now that ST descover that the steel is substandard, ST resharpened their pencil and wa-la the substandard steel is OK. ST does not need to reconstruct columns.

    Were the columns over-designed simply because Sound Transit was spending:


    Pretty much par for the course with Washington governments.”

    I love how the message boards have turned into forums for disgruntled talk radio fueled Republicans….

    1. Another gem from the always prolific Gimme A Break:

      And yet AGAIN, and AGAIN, some dirtbag takes money and supplies SUB-STANDARD parts, which put many peoples’ lives at great risk….and he MIGHT get JUST 5 years and a $250K fine??? He must be paying someone in Govt a nice cut – come on Seattle Times, to WHOM, did he make campaign contributions????? Shouldn’t he serve as an example and serve at least 10 years HARD time?

    2. I can’t believe this guy is complaining ST is wasting taxpayer money by using conservative engineering. Typically over-engineering is considered a good thing up to a point. Otherwise you end up with things that fail, or that wear out prior to their design lifetimes.

      1. It’s not over-engineering, it’s lack of engineering. I’m concerned by the comment, “it’s a detailing exercise at the discretion of the design engineer”. Some CAD jockey using cut and paste that probably has no idea what he’s spec’ing out is all too common. Engineers are all too often devoid of any practical experience concerning how things are actually built. It’s not just ST or government it’s pervasive in everything from mega projects to single family homes.

      2. Wow, where’d you come up with that?

        This casing is only really necessary for the concrete pour. It could have just been removed, but that would have taken more work, I’d imagine. How strong it has to be doesn’t really matter because its *existence* is icing on the seismic strength cake.

      3. That’s the point. Spec’ing high strength steel for something that may have required nothing more than a cardboard tube form is a lack of engineering. If it could have been removed then the “how” shouldn’t have been in the drawing at all. This isn’t a ST problem, it’s endemic in “engineering” today.

      4. No, honestly, I think you just don’t understand the issue. This was a discretionary requirement. Of course you overengineer – that’s why good infrastructure lasts, because it’s built well over spec, often to handle problems like this.

      5. NO, if it says on the drawings to use 50ksi steel that’s NOT discretionary. What happens is contractors see rampant stupidity in the engineering drawing and ignore drawing specs. What happens is anyone who bids based on the spec is so over priced that they have no chance of getting the job (one of the problems with the Washington State DOT legal requirement to accept the low cost bid). Falsified test results are fraud, no doubt about it. But because the engineering drawings are typically so bad the people doing the work start to treat them as “discetionary”.

        Neither of us has actually review the engineering drawings so we don’t know the whole story. We do know from the reporting that the issue is fraud on the part of the contractor. The issue of cost savings from better engineering is open but this idea that “over engineering” is good is wrong from a cost perspective and way wrong from an engineering perspective.

      6. Wait, the contractors here didn’t see “rampant stupidity”. They saw 50 ksi and put in 36 ksi or whatever.

        They defrauded the taxpayer (including you, my dear Bernie).

        I’ll also add that the engineering was not done by ST, but by a (separate) contractor. No government agency builds its own projects.

      7. Bernie… designing something above its basic requirements is a core tenet of civil engineering, specifically because you don’t always know all of your unknowns. This is a great example of that.

        Now, I think you should read the engineer’s report, as I linked, because the casings are, quite simply, optional. Discretionary. Not required. I even quoted the relevant portion of the bridge design manual.

        Reading over your comments here, I think you now understand the issue, but you’re modifying your argument in order to pigeonhole Sound Transit into either “unsafe” or “wasting your money”. Neither of those things are the case, that’s patently obvious, so please cut it out.

      8. No I’m not singling out ST on this. The optional part is in the design manual, the drawings didn’t reflect that. They called out steel that was in excess of requirements. The way this should work (and quite likely the way ST does it) is the contractor goes to the project manager and asks for a change to the cheaper steel and says he’ll cut $20k from the cost. The engineer reviews the drawing and says yes. The contractor pockets $16k and ST gets a $20k savings. What the contractor did was commit fraud by falsifying test results. If he’d just used the wrong steel ST probably would have said give us back the cost savings and don’t do that again.

        More is not better in civil engineering. You design to a safety factor. It’s a common misconception that making something stronger is better engineering. Seismic design assumes flexibility in a structure. If you make part of a structure less flexible you can compromise the entire design. If a structural column calls for 20 pieces of rebar an inspector will reject it for 24 pieces the same way he would if there was only 16.

      9. Forty to fifty years ago, when computers were just coming into common use at engineering firms, there was this push to use this new technology to improve design and remove unnecessary conservatism. Not only did designs get slimmed down, but often redundant load paths and fault tolerant features got eliminated. The attitude was that “with this new technology we are smarter now so we won’t make mistakes,” and therefore they thought it was possible to build reduced margin designs without fault tolerant features.

        One such structure designed using this approach was the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. In retrospect, not only were the gusset plates undersized, but the structure was not fault tolerant.

        The first thing a good engineer learns coming out of school is that it is impossible to fully predict the operating environment that your design will experience over its lifetime. Loads change, critical maintenance gets deferred, new chemicals and paints get applied, people do stupid things in unimaginably stupid ways, etc.

        For this reason structures always get overbuilt. ST is right to do it; in fact, they are obligated by real world experience to do it.

        That mid-60’s approach to reduced margin design is now out of favor. We’ve learned that even with powerful computers and smart people we can still make mistakes.

        (Note: There is a parallel with our current economic meltdown. Apparently we thought we were so smart with all our new financial tools that we could accurately predict and model risk. Therefore we could increase our leverage without risk and………collapse.)

      10. Computer Aided Design isn’t the issue here. Computer Aided Drafting is. The detailing gets shoved off to a tech and managers assume the computer does it all for you. Universities stopped requiring engineering students to take drafting classes back in the 80’s and replaced it will a quarter of computer lab. The computer is a great tool but you still have to know how to use it. The over spec’d over priced steel had nothing to do with the structural integrity. It was cut & paste boiler plate that nobody bothered to review. The contractor should have asked for a deviation, not falsified test results. What would be a more interesting story is how ST discovered the fraud.

      11. I was talking more in terms of design philosophy than in design production or management. We’re a lot smarter now then we were in the 60’s, and one of the ways that we are smarter is that we acknowledge that we will make mistakes.

        But the contractor should have asked for a deviation – covering up a mistake is always worse than making it in the first place.

      12. No, Bernie. You seem to fundamentally believe that we don’t need to build structures to withstand stresses outside design requirements. That’s dangerous, as we’ve learned. Please just accept that this isn’t waste, this is good design.

      13. Ben, I’m glad you think gold plated foots are a public benefit. The ST can do no wrong reinforces in peoples mind the idea that they just don’t care, they just don’t have to.

      14. It’s hardly gold plating, and it’s just not that big a deal no matter which way you look at — the cost difference is small, and the lower strength steel is still acceptable.

        Personally, given the small price delta, I’d rather have ST use the higher strength stuff, but it’s really not that big a deal either way.

        And I don’t think people are that concerned about ST — if they thought ST was doing a bad job they wouldn’t have voted to fund ST2. People are generally pleased with ST, and not just those of us on STB.

        Now if you want to see some really hardover commentators, go read the comments on the Times article.

      15. Bernie, why don’t you take out some of those unnecessary beams in your home and sell them? You don’t need all that extra support, good enough is good enough, right?

      16. I think the point Bernie is trying to make is this: since retaining the casings was discretionary, that implies that retaining them was not necessary to ensure the integrity of the columns. This means that ST could have required the casings to be removed instead of leaving them in place. So, if they weren’t REQUIRED to be retained and they weren’t REQUIRED to strengthen the columns, why overdesign them? You could potentially have made the casings of cardboard so that they would eventually just dissolve away and save a great deal of money.

      17. We can’t use cardboard for an underground concrete pour.

        Here’s what I think actually happened:

        1) We need steel forms because this is underground.
        2) The cost of removing them all is something like $75,000.
        3) The cost of upgrading from 36ksi to 50ksi is $50,000, and would add one more layer of structural integrity in The Big One.
        4) What do state and federal design manuals suggest? Leave them there if you can, but you don’t need to.
        5) We can, and it’s cheaper to make them better than to remove them.
        6) Decision made.

        This is the most ridiculous non-issue I’ve seen in a while. Frankly, it was a good decision.

      18. Ben,
        That is what I suspect as well. Considering that leaving steel forms in place on column pours seems pretty common from what I’ve seen. I doubt the ST engineers are the first to go through that analysis.

      19. I know you can’t use cardboard for a concrete form, that was just a bit of hyperbole on my part.

        I agree it is cheaper to leave the forms in place than it would be to remove them. But your comment of “Leave them there if you can, but you don’t need to” tends to make Bernie’s point and also negates your (unnecessary as far as I am concerned) comment to Bernie of “Bernie, why don’t you take out some of those unnecessary beams in your home and sell them?”

        If removing the forms is an option, then that means the support columns have been designed with a sufficient safety margin to (hopefully) withstand the “Big One” with minimal damage without the forms. Otherwise, removing them would not be an option. In that case, why spend the extra money to “overdesign” the forms?

        If the cost of upgrading from 36ksi to 50ksi is $50,000, then the total extra upgrade cost for the 154 columns mentioned in the article is $7.7 million. Wouldn’t it be better to take that $7.7 million and use it on other parts of Link? That just gives more ammunition to the “Sound Transit just wastes taxpayer money” crowd.

  7. I’m not sure what Frank’s fishwrapper hopes to accomplish with its sensationalist anti-Sound Transit yellow journalism. Though I suppose it fits with their overall anti-transit and anti-density editorial bent.

    1. I’ve got a photo I took last weekend of a giant newspaper recycling bin on a Metro North platform at Grand Central, full of papers from people getting off the trains. I don’t think the Times understands that it’s their bottom line that’s at stake when they come out against rail.

  8. The comments to that poorly written Times’ article are HILARIOUS! And what brings all the out of state people into the fray?

      1. The P-I is keeping its costs as low as possible because it’s currently well-positioned for the next paper failure.

        Like I’ve said, wait until ad revenue drops in advance of holiday ad buys. This is going to be epic.

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