AASHTO Journal, 14 November 2014
The Federal Highway Administration accepted a plan by a unit of Trinity Industries for the manufacturer to put its ET-Plus highway guardrail end terminal system through a new series of crash tests, to determine whether the widely used product will remain eligible for FHWA reimbursements to states.
The agency asked for the new tests on Oct. 21, a day after a federal jury in Texas found Trinity liable for fraud for not reporting past design changes to the FHWA. It gave Trinity until Oct. 31 to submit a testing plan.
The jury also ordered Trinity to pay the government $175 million in damages and Trinity has indicated it will appeal. But given related penalties and other potential expenses, the debt ratings service Fitch Ratings has said the company could be facing $1 billion in eventual liquidity risks.
Trinity has suspended shipments of ET-Plus systems pending a new set of tests, and at least 40 states have said they were halting installations of the guardrail end terminals in the meantime.
The FHWA said it expects tests to begin the week of Nov. 17 at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, which did not participate in earlier rounds of ET-Plus tests in 2005 and 2010.
The re-testing will be performed “with FHWA safety engineers present and state transportation officials invited to participate,” the agency said, and the product must meet test criteria that were in place when the device was developed to be eligible for federal reimbursement.
Gregory Nadeau, acting FHWA administrator, said the crash tests are just “one of several efforts” by the agency “to review the safety performance of the ET-Plus and other guardrail end terminals.” The FHWA listed a number of steps it has been taking, which include reviewing surveys of state transportation departments about the ET-Plus performance.
After the FHWA announcement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote Nadeau saying “I am very concerned that the testing protocol you’ve prescribed is woefully inadequate and far too deferential to Trinity.”
The agency is also setting some terms for the testing. In a Nov. 12 letter to Gregg Mitchell, president of Trinity Highway Products, Nadeau said the FHWA “retains authority to approve which devices are tested.”
Nadeau said his agency “will work with Trinity to procure systems from existing state departments of transportation inventories to be used in the testing and to ensure proper chain of custody.”