Construction on new Corpus Christi bridge halted as engineers say design flaws could lead to collapse

The project to replace the current Harbor Bridge is already years past its expected completion date.

By Kristen Cabrera & Raul AlonzoSeptember 15, 2022 4:08 pm

In Corpus Christi, there’s a construction project that’s been giving public officials headaches for the better part of six years: the new Harbor Bridge.

The new construction is set to replace the current Harbor Bridge, which was built in the late 1950s. But work has stopped, because engineers involved with the project are worried that design issues could lead to a collapse.

Chase Rogers, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, says the project has had plenty of controversy. He joined the Texas Standard to share the latest.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, could you give us a little background on this bridge project? I understand it was supposed to be done by 2020, but now work’s halted indefinitely. Is that right?

Chase Rogers: Yes, sir. It has been really a decades-long process. TxDOT first mulled over replacing the current Harbor Bridge in the early 2000s. The 1950s-era bridge is, as they see it, obsolete. It’s not tall enough to allow large vessels into the channel, and there’s some public safety concerns with walkability and stuff like that for the bridge. This new bridge broke ground in 2016, and it’s going to have a higher, kind of vertical clearance to allow larger vessels in, as well as it’s going to be more walkable. It’s actually, once it’s finished, going to be the tallest structure in South Texas.

For folks who don’t live in Corpus, though, can you explain the importance of this bridge for getting around and to the community writ large? 

Yes, so the current Harbor Bridge connects Corpus Christi’s downtown to its historic North Beach, which folks may know is the home of the decommissioned aircraft carrier the USS Lexington, as well as the Texas State Aquarium, which are both very popular tourist attractions. So the North Beach plays a big part in our local economy, and the bridge itself also is just a signature of Corpus Christi. There’s a good chance that, if you’ve seen pictures of Corpus Christi, you’ve already seen the bridge. It really is uniquely a Corpus Christi landmark.

So what is going wrong in the eyes of the engineers who have said we’ve got to stop construction right now?

So this all started in mid-July, when TxDOT directed the developer to pause all construction on the cable-stayed span of the bridge. So that’s the kind of main span that the cars travel on. It turns out that they had hired an independent consultant to take a look at the proposed design, and they found five primary areas of concern, and these concerns have been discussed for a while.

When they first announced this pause and did a later news conference, they presented a timeline that said that these concerns had arisen earlier this year, but we had obtained correspondence that shows that this had started as early as 2018, 2019.

That people were discussing these potential problems?

Yes. So this project has already kind of grabbed national headlines. The previous engineer of record that designed this bridge, they had a bridge that they also designed in Florida that collapsed and killed six people and injured 10. So after that happened, TxDOT kind of started the process with the developer to remove that engineer of record and get a new designer. So that also caused some delays, and it’s why the project, as it stands now, is about to exceed its nearly $1 billion budget and is, in total, four years behind.

What lies ahead of the folks who are responsible for getting this new bridge built?

The latest on this is that TxDOT had given the developer a 15-day ultimatum to address these concerns or be removed from the project. We’re at the end of the 15 days, but TxDOT said that they had entered negotiations with the developer — talking about these concerns and kind of crafting a plan. So that’s where it last was. They’re still talking and discussing, and as of right now, the developer is still on the project. As I understand it, they’re still looking at potential solutions for these five design concerns with the bridge.

Correction: This story has been updated to say the Harbor Bridge was built in the 1950s.

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