WFTS-TV, Tampa, Fla.: ‘Crosstown Expressway Investigation’

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In April 2004 one of the supports for the $360 million Crosstown Expressway project in Tampa, Fla., buckled, causing a bridge to cave in. There weren’t any cars on it, but that support was the first of three to sink.

“The pier sank to the ground and basically pancaked,” said Aaron Wische, executive producer for the investigative unit at Scripps-owned ABC affiliate WFTS-TV in Tampa. The collapse was, naturally, a huge story that all the local news outlets covered. The Expressway Authority quickly tagged the problem as the result of a sinkhole.

But the investigative team at WFTS was suspicious. Back in September 2003 the station had received a tip from a Crosstown Expressway project worker that the piers were being constructed incorrectly, leading to a WFTS news report in which Expressway officials admitted the errors. The officials said they fired the employees who were responsible and maintained that the errors did not compromise the integrity of the piers.

So when a pier did indeed collapse several months later, the WFTS team started digging around and requested every engineering and construction record on the project-more than 10,000 pages.

“We were able to determine that the Expressway Authority knew they were building on soft ground and that all along there were warnings about piers and the pier that collapsed,” Mr. Wische said. “Months before that they had been given warnings there were problems with that pier. Piers were sinking all summer.”

The station stayed on the story all summer, finding that there were more than 100 defective supports for the bridge and that the project director, Pat McCue, had been claiming he was a professional engineer even though his license had expired in 1999. He was subsequently fired.

The station aired more than 20 pieces on the story from September 2003 to December 2004.

Following the WFTS reports, the Expressway Authority hired an outside firm to evaluate the design and construction. The firm found that many of the supports were indeed structurally flawed and poorly designed, Mr. Wische said.

As a result, construction was halted for several months while the group developed a remediation plan. The project is now about a year behind schedule and $80 million over budget, but a new leadership team has been put in place that holds weekly meetings with the media and is on track to finish the project this summer.