Popular engineering YouTube channel highlights Harbor Bridge problems

The Harbor Bridge Replacement Project, whose construction on a critical section of the bridge was halted indefinitely this summer due to design issues, is the subject of a video posted this week by a popular YouTube channel focused on the ‘engineering.

The video, hosted by San Antonio civil engineer Grady Hillhouse, was posted on the Practical Engineering YouTube channel on Tuesday. As of Wednesday morning, the video had been viewed more than 336,000 times and ranked 14th on YouTube’s trending page.

The incomplete cable-stayed bridge, which will be South Texas’ tallest structure when completed, will span the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and replace the 1950s Harbor Bridge. The current bridge connects downtown Corpus Christi via the US 181 in North Beach, home to popular tourist attractions such as the USS Lexington and the Texas State Aquarium.

“(The new bridge) is just down the road, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing it finished for years,” Hillhouse said in the nearly 22-minute video, which includes drone footage of Corpus Christi and detailed animations. design elements of the proposed bridge. “Let’s take a look at the fascinating engineering behind this colossal bridge and sift through the documents released by (the Texas Department of Transportation) to see if design flaws could completely kill the project.”

What is Practical Engineering?

The Practical Engineering channel hosts a myriad of videos on infrastructure and engineering topics around the world and currently has over 2.85 million subscribers. Hillhouse, who studied civil engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station before graduating in 2012, said he originally uploaded to the channel as a hobby.

Hillhouse initially released instructional woodworking videos and later moved on to more engineering-focused content. He said he realized the channel was gaining momentum when the informational videos he originally created for his wife’s kindergarten classes started gaining viewership on YouTube.

A screenshot from a viral YouTube video about the Texas Department of Transportation Harbor Bridge Replacement Project in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Then, noting people’s appetite for informative, digestible videos on engineering topics and concepts, he quit a job as an engineer and project manager at a San Antonio-based engineering company — where he had worked for nearly 10 years – to run the YouTube channel full-time in 2020.

Hillhouse said he and his family frequently vacation in Port Aransas and, in turn, often travel through Corpus Christi. He usually keeps tabs on big infrastructure projects in Texas, but it was during these trips that he became interested in the Harbor Bridge project.

In particular, TxDOT’s announcement in July to suspend construction on the main span and its decision to later go public with its dispute with the developer, the Flatiron/Dragados joint venture, piqued its interest.

“I just knew it was a cool story, and it’s a very striking structure,” he said.

What has happened so far?

Hillhouse’s video opens with a narration of how TxDOT ordered Flatiron/Dragados to halt construction on the nearly $1 billion main cable-stayed span of the Harbor Bridge in July due to design concerns proposed, which TxDOT said included the possibility of collapse.

Following the July announcement, the Nueces County state delegation and local officials called for more transparency from TxDOT on the status of the project and its specific public safety concerns. . Over the next few weeks, TxDOT was slow to release the information and provide the records requested by the Caller-Times.

A 2016 rendering of the new Harbor Bridge.

Through the video, Hillhouse cites a number of documents that TxDOT eventually released and explains how Flatiron/Dragados was selected for the project, what that means the project uses a design-build program delivery method, and the unexpected obstacles the project has faced since innovating in 2016.

With an original 2020 completion date, the project faced significant headwinds in 2018 when a Florida pedestrian bridge designed by former Harbor Bridge designer FIGG Bridge Engineers collapsed, killing six people and injuring 10.

A federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board resulted in a report critical of FIGG’s work on the pedestrian bridge in 2019. FIGG pushed back against the report, pointing out that the bridge’s construction — not its design — was a contributing factor.

Ultimately, TxDOT pulled FIGG from the Harbor Bridge project in 2019 and tasked Flatiron/Dragados with finding a replacement, who would be responsible for reviewing the FIGG designs.

Learn more about Harbor Bridge:Here’s an engineering professor’s breakdown of TxDOT’s concerns about the new Harbor Bridge

Earlier this year, Flatiron/Dragados said the bridge would be completed and open to traffic by mid to late 2024. However, TxDOT’s independent consultant, International Bridge Technologies, again voiced its concerns concerns about the proposed design.

At a press conference in August, TxDOT executive director Marc Williams said TxDOT had issued Flatiron/Dragados a Notice of Default, a legal notice that gave the developer 15 days to provide a plan to address the TxDOT’s design concerns. He said Flatiron/Dragados had shown a “lack of responsiveness” to concerns raised by International Bridge Technologies.

What are the takeaways from the video?

International Bridge Technologies raised five main areas of concern with the proposed design. Four of the concerns relate to deficiencies in the design of the main span of the bridge, including the elements of the bridge foundation, the segments of the main span and the stability under certain wind conditions.

The fifth reason, which Hillhouse said he considers the most pressing, relates to the specific locations of the cranes during the main span construction process.

“Construction is a vulnerable time for a bridge like this, especially before the deck is connected between the pylons and the first piers of the approaches,” he said.

Corpus Christi's Harbor Bridge, seen from Sunset Lake Park on August 27, 2022, in Portland, Texas.

Now that the 15-day deadline has passed, TxDOT and Flatiron/Dragados are in “promising talks” to continue work on the project and address concerns, TxDOT District Engineer Corpus Christi announced last month.

Hillhouse said it was “hard to overstate” the disruption to the project schedule the hiatus could have.

“Construction projects of this scale are among the most complicated and interrelated things humans do,” he said. “They don’t just start and stop on a dime, and these legal actions will have implications for thousands of people working on the new Harbor Bridge project.”

Additionally, the whole situation raises questions about why TxDOT would allow work to continue when they had been aware of the ongoing issues for years.

“Megaprojects like this are extremely complex, and their design and construction rarely proceed without at least some complications. There just aren’t as many precedents for engineering or construction,” Hillhouse said. “But, we have processes in place to account for bumps in the road and even bumps in the bridge deck. These processes include extensive quality control on designs before construction begins.”

He ends the video by stating that only two things are certain with the project: it will cost more than originally anticipated and will not meet its previously stated completion date of 2024.

“As someone who lives in South Texas, I’m proud to have this project in my backyard, and I hope these issues can be resolved without too much impact on the schedule or cost of the project,” did he declare.

Robert M. Larson