CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Channel 9 obtained internal city documents that indicated thousands of defective concrete ties had been discovered on the new Blue Line extension.
Internal emails and reports suggest this major construction problem may have been central to why the project was significantly delayed.
Charlotte Area Transit System officials deny the issue played a role in the delay, but admitted late Wednesday it had discovered 2,076 defective concrete ties to date that have needed to be replaced. Another 2,400 have been sealed with epoxy.
The cracking problems affect approximately 12 percent of the total concrete ties installed, according to CATS.
One internal document, obtained through a public records request, reveals that the "cracking of concrete ties" was first noticed at some point in late 2015.
But other internal documents suggest the cracked rail tie problem didn't get serious attention from CATS or its contractors until eight months later.
One contractor emailed a colleague on Aug. 5, 2016, and wrote, "It looks like we have a lot of concrete ties that are cracking at the inserts."
An internal email dated Nov. 10, 2016, shows that CATS and its external project manager were pushing hard behind the scenes to make the lead contractor replace all the defective concrete ties.
In early December 2016, one contractor informed a colleague that CATS was "looking at rejecting a bunch of ties that are cracked in the middle" and shared photos of the cracking problem.
The colleague, a track inspector based in Denver, replied that in his 13 years of working maintenance in Denver, he has not seen this type of cracking on any of the ties on the entire system.
Emails show this was a confirmation of the problem for CATS officials in Charlotte.
A full investigation was launched by a contracted engineer in December 2016 who revealed that "personnel familiar with this problem believe the cracking continues to worsen, even though the line is not open."
The internal findings revealed that lead contractor Balfour Beatty claimed to "not know how or when the cracks happened" but found "the ballast pads prepared for track construction were uneven in some locations by the time the ties were in place."
The manufacturer of the concrete ties insisted in late 2016 it made "good ties" but cautioned that "cracks propagating down the sides of the ties might lead to failure" at some point. They also acknowledge that "cracks of the nature seen across the face of the ties would be cause for rejection at the plant."
A company, ROCLA Concrete Tie, delivered the concrete ties that were cracking. However, the cracking ties were manufactured by another company that had been recently acquired.
ROCLA itself has since been sold to yet another company but has retained its name. The company did not respond to Channel 9’s request for a comment.
The internal investigative report conveyed CATS position that "they paid for ties free of cracks and that is what they want. They are concerned about downstream maintenance costs."
CATS indicated,"... the ties should be replaced. Public confidence in the new system should not be compromised."
Construction officials told CATS that only 30 concrete ties could be replaced per day. Channel 9 calculated that at that rate it would require an additional 10 weeks of daily work to replace the 2,076 defective rail ties.
CATS has not spoken publicly about the defective concrete tie problem until Wednesday when they were contacted by WSOC-TV.
They sent this tweet in response to our investigation. (See below)
The concrete cracking issue was not part of the official presentation to Charlotte City Council or the public comments made by CATS CEO John Lewis in February 2017 when he announced the delayed opening of the Blue Line extension.
An internal document dated March 22, indicated the tie replacement program was underway at that point. CATS deputy director John Muth wrote on the side of an agenda that the "new ties don't appear to be cracking" while also revealing the "older ties continue to develop cracks" and that efforts were underway to determine the root cause.
CATS insisted in its response that there would be "no additional cost to the taxpayer," as a result of the cracking and is monitoring the problem.
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