Why did road under FIU bridge stay open? Federal judge blocks release of records

Miami Herald by NICHOLAS NEHAMAS

October 5, 2018

A federal judge Friday blocked the release of documents that could shed light on why a busy road outside Miami was not shut down before a brand-new bridge developing severe cracks collapsed and killed six people.

Judge William Stafford said the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the Florida International University bridge disaster, “was exercising its valid federal regulatory authority” in keeping the documents confidential from the media.

Stafford’s ruling essentially overturns a previous decision from a state court that would have released the records under Florida’s broad public records law. Stafford said the state court did not have proper jurisdiction to rule on the matter. His decision suggests federal jurisdiction over the accident preempts state law.

The documents in question include minutes and notes from a meeting held hours before the newly constructed pedestrian bridge fell down March 15. They are in the possession of the Florida Department of Transportation. The Miami Herald requested their release from FDOT after the collapse, but the NTSB ordered the state not to share the records, saying their publication could threaten the integrity of its probe.

What was discussed in that meeting may prove crucial. The meeting was held because alarming cracks had developed in the span even before it was raised into place above Southwest Eighth Street. After the meeting, a construction crew clambered on top of the bridge to tighten steel rods running through the span. The workers were standing on the bridge when it came crashing down, and their actions may have caused the already over-stressed bridge to collapse, according to bridge engineering experts consulted by the Herald.

It’s not clear who decided the road should stay open during the construction work and why. FIU was the lead agency on the bridge project, which was meant to connect student housing in Sweetwater with its main campus and allow pedestrians to avoid a ground-level crossing of a road bustling with commuter traffic. The university was joined in a supporting role by FDOT, although the state has controversially tried to distance itself from the project. The meeting was attended by representatives of FIU, FDOT and contractors working on the bridge.

Without the records, answers aren’t likely to come soon: NTSB investigations generally take at least a year to conclude.

“This is a devastating decision that renders moot Florida’s public records law,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “We are extremely disappointed that the public will have to continue to wait for answers.”

The records could have been made public in August, when a state court ruled they should be released to the Herald. The newspaper had sued FDOT to obtain the documents.

The NTSB responded by taking the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern Division of Florida and asking Stafford to quash, or declare invalid, the state court ruling.

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