Questions and concerns raised about the project include erosion, road construction problems, water diversion and the effects on area wildlife and the responsibility of oversight and accountability.

COMMERCE – The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) gave answers to what they describe as “allegations against the project,” on the newly constructed and dedicated Stepps Ford Bridge project outside of Commerce.

Landowner Jack Dalrymple and Ottawa County Commissioner John Clarke have both expressed concerns over the $6 million new bridge over the Neosho River to replace an old bridge that had been closed for safety. Dalrymple donated several acres of land for the project and used design engineers Guy Engineering Services of Tulsa, and the construction team of A.M Cohron & Son, Inc. of Atlantic, Iowa.

The bridge is located in District 1, Commissioner Clarke’s district of responsibility, and replaces the historic original steel truss bridge built in 1901, which was then moved seven miles west of Commerce on East 60 Road.

Questions and concerns raised about the project include erosion, road construction problems, water diversion and the effects on area wildlife and the responsibility of oversight and accountability.

“On projects which are eligible for the County Improvements for Roads & Bridges program (CIRB), the overall owner of the project is the county, ODOT spokesperson Kenna Carmon said in response. “The Board of County Commissioners has jurisdiction over the design, construction, maintenance and repair of all county roads and bridges in their counties. The County may use the county or Circuit Engineering District (CED) engineer, employ an engineering consultant or request assistance from ODOT with pre-construction activities of design, acquiring R/W, relocating utilities, project letting and/or construction inspection.”

Carmon said it is Ottawa County's responsibility to design and oversee the Stepps Ford Bridge project.

“ODOT did not design this particular project in Ottawa County nor is our role to review their overall design of plans, “ she wrote in an email response.“ Typically during plan development, we will meet with the County and their engineer to review the plans for constructability, such as if the utilities clear the proposed construction or if the right of way sufficient to relocate utilities and construct the project. When a project is awarded, we will administer the construction contract. But the county is still the owner of the project and is kept updated on the activities. The county would be better able to talk about the critical needs of the original bridge and why they selected it for replacement.”

ODOT admits the new Stepps Ford Bridge project was problematic, including dealing with possible environmental impacts to the endangered Madtom.

“It is fair to say this project has been challenging for all involved,” Carmon wrote in an email “On construction projects, environmental studies are done several years ahead of the final design work. This allows for the development of mitigation measures to address unavoidable work impacts to wildlife, land, historic area, etc. The environmental study for this project was based on a bridge design which had four piers. However, prior to the letting the bridge design had been changed to six piers to accommodate beam delivery. That change added additional piers into the Neosho River that ultimately required a reevaluation of the biological assessment for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife formal consultation. There are also specific times when work can’t take place in the waterway as it would impact the endangered fish in this waterway, which was originally noted.”

ODOT claims the existing historic flooding which occurs on the Neosho River at the bridge construction site lent to the issues raised.

“It’s also important to note that this area is in a flood plain and received a historic flood event in December 2015, which impacted the banks both upstream and downstream of this project. Mr. Dalrymple had filed a complaint with the Oklahoma DEQ related to this and in late 2016 that agency advised that no wrongdoing was found and dismissed his complaint. We also had our Hydraulics Engineer review the area and it was concluded that this is an existing floodplain, it is considered to be a wetland, and flooding issues existed prior to the project,” Carmon responded.

ODOT Division Engineer Randle White addressed more specific questions raised regarding the Stepps Ford project. He also said oversight of the project lies with the Ottawa County Commissioners.

“This is not an ODOT project. The Board of County Commissioners has jurisdiction over the design, construction, maintenance and repair of all county roads and bridges in their counties,” White said.

Construction inspections on the site were completed, according to White, and reported to the interested parties in the project.

“Yes, there was construction inspection on site. It is the role of the inspector to monitor the daily work, ensure it is following the plans and specifications, initiate the estimates and also work with the contractor daily to identify and address any potential issues where feasible and reasonable. Typically the inspector reports to ODOT, and the county and other interested parties are kept advised of the progress and potential issues, “ White said.

An omission from their contract caused A.M. Cohron & Son's to file a claim for additional costs of $267,784 for delays due to the spawning season of the Madtom, although Clarke claims this was discussed at the pre-bid meeting.

“ODOT Environmental contracted with an independent biologist to monitor construction activities for compliance with the Neosho Madtom notes and requirements,” White said. “ It was discovered at the prework meeting that an Environmental Mitigation note did not specify that work in the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) was not allowed during the spawning season of the Neosho Madtom (May 1 – July 31) according to USFWS Incidental Take Statement. The contractor mobilized to the project site and began work on items outside the OHWM. During this period ODOT Environmental discovered that the initial consultation with USFWS was based on a bridge footprint with 4 pier bents instead of the revised 6 pier bent bridge. ODOT Environmental re-opened the consultation with USFWS based on the revised bridge design. During the reevaluation, it was discovered that the Neosho Mucket Mussel had since been added to the list of protected species. The new Mucket issue required that the Muckets be removed and relocated by specialists from the Peoria Tribe. This was before the contractor could begin work in the OHWM.”

White did not respond to the issue of where the funding of the $267,784 overrun would come from.

Changes to the bridge's design from a four pier bent bridge to a six pier bent bridge caused changes to the construction timeline, along with the discovery of the Neosho Mucket Mussel.

“ODOT Environmental contracted with an independent biologist to monitor construction activities for compliance with the Neosho Madtom notes and requirements,” White said. “It was discovered at the prework meeting that an Environmental Mitigation note did not specify that work in the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) was not allowed during the spawning season of the Neosho Madtom (May 1 – July 31) according to USFWS Incidental Take Statement. The contractor mobilized to the project site and began work on items outside the OHWM. During this period ODOT Environmental discovered that the original consultation with USFWS was based on a bridge footprint with 4 pier bents instead of the revised 6 pier bent bridge. ODOT Environmental re-opened the consultation with USFWS based on the revised bridge design. During the reevaluation, it was discovered that the Neosho Mucket Mussel had been added to the list of protected species. The new Mucket issue required that the Muckets be removed and relocated by specialists from the Peoria Tribe. This was before the contractor could begin work in the OHWM.”

Dalrymple and Clarke have both expressed concerns about the substantial bank erosion at the bridge left behind from the construction and water diversion causing significant changes to the banks of the Neosho River.

“The bank within the project right of way has been addressed as specified by the plans,'” White said.

Dalrymple filed several Freedom of Information Act requests asking for copies of studies, or information on the steps that have been made for the subsequent erosion concerns occurring due to the pier from the old bridge causing diversionary and turbulent water flow onto his land and the subsequent destabilization and bank erosion. Clarke claims he brought these issues to Garver's attention.

“Our Hydraulics Engineer reviewed the area and it was noted that the landowner's property is in the natural floodplain of the Neosho River, it is also considered to be a wetland," White said. "These were all preexisting conditions. Nothing has been done to adversely affect the flow of the Neosho River and its tributaries to the land owner’s property.”

Dalrymple claims soil protection devices were not properly maintained during construction of the Stepps Ford Bridge.

“Silt fences are in place outside in the elements, and are maintained by the contractor and any issue arising from storm damage, wear and tear, etc., and are addressed as soon as soon as practical. The contractor and Mr. Dalrymple’s did have an arrangement for a borrow pit to be dug on his property and he was compensated for that. However any silt fence on Mr. Dalrymple’s property would have been between him and the contractor since it would have been on private property,” White said.

Asphalt failure was identified before the bridge was even completed and pavement alongside the bridge is heavily indented in places.

“Pavement issues were noted in the final inspection and addressed by the contractor,” White said.

Garver's allowance of “failing material” to be used when it did not meet specs and the contractor opting to incur a 20 percent reduction, caused concerns for the effect of the longevity or quality of the project.

“It is not 'failing material.' Specifications allow for work or materials which do not conform to the contract, but meet the design purpose to be accepted under the conditions determined by the Resident Engineer and may include an adjustment in the contract unit price (price reduction),” White said.

The ODOT engineer did not specifically address the question of the effect of this on the longevity or quality of the project, but did address not using baserock under the turn out property access roads.

“Typically aggregate base is installed under main line pavement and not under private driveways. The plans for this project did not specify that aggregate base would be placed under private driveways,” he said.

ODOT's engineer says Dalrymple's claims that the Neosho River's channel flow was diverted onto his private property is not true.

“The design did not divert the Neosho channel flow through Mr. Dalrymple’s property. In the case of flooding events, this is a preexisting condition of the river as it is in a floodplain,” White said.

An additional 980 tons of Type 1-A riprap washed into the river and had to be replaced causing more concern for the wildlife, erosion, and diversion issues raised.

“Only aware of riprap sluffing into the river during a flood event. The contractor repaired the flood damage within the right of way,” White said.

Ongoing discussion of the issues with the Stepps Ford project is still underway, according to Dalrymple, who says his reasons for concern and questions are to ensure the taxpayers of Ottawa County get the project they were promised.