The Waiting Game

How long does it take
to build a bridge? Only time will tell

But bridge builders can be creative risk-takers



(January 2010)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

For months now, consultants for the Milton-Madison Bridge Project have been touting a superstructure replacement onto the existing piers as a nine to 12 month process. That is the projected time period they say the bridge would actually be shut down. Meantime, they would spend $5.6 million on a two-vessel ferry service to run 24 hours a day across the Ohio River from Milton to Madison.
Optimists – creative engineers mostly – say it could be done in much shorter time; pessimists – most of the general public – expect it to take much longer.
But project manager John Carr of Wilbur Smith Associates Inc., the lead consultant on the Milton-Madison Bridge Project, said he expects very creative bids from several companies who need the work and are willing to take a financial risk to finish the job in less than nine months. Once the $95 million federal stimulus funds are secured in late January – expected by some to be almost certain – Carr’s group plans to move quickly to develop the bid package and release it by March in hopes of selecting a company by May. He says the winning bid must meet all the requirements of the package but can be very creative in how quickly the project can be completed. In fact, premiums will be paid on a daily basis for completing it more quickly.
That sounds good to commuters who rely on the 3/4-mile long span to get to work or school each day. It also sounds good to merchants and trucking companies who rely on the bridge for their commercial livelihoods.
But who really knows?

Coleman Bridge

Photo provided by Skanksa USA

A 1,600-ft section of the George
P. Coleman Bridge across Virginia’s York
River took only nine days to replace.

“Because of the poor economy, a lot of bridge builders are looking for work right now, and I expect to see a lot of creativity when it comes to bidding this project,” he said. He added that state regulations require taking the lowest bid, as long as it conforms to all the requirements of the bid package.
“Any bid that fails to meet even one requirement will be tossed out. There will be a value placed on each day the bridge is completed ahead of schedule,” Carr said.
According to engineers who worked on another bridge replacement project in 1995 in Virginia, the Milton-Madison Bridge superstructure replacement could actually be completed in matter of days or weeks. Not months.
It took Skanska USA Civil Southeast bridge builders in Virginia Beach, Va., only nine days to replace a 1,600-foot swing section of the George P. Coleman Bridge that crosses the York River in Yorktown, Va.
Nine days!
The two projects are similar in that the Coleman project also replaced a two-lane bridge with a four-lane bridge on existing piers. Everything – superstructure, roadway and light poles – were lifted into place during the nine-day bridge closure.
Can such a thing occur here?
“It (Milton-Madison Bridge) can be done (in a shorter time than nine months),” said Mark Apaliski, Skanska’s senior estimator who worked on the Coleman Bridge replacement project for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “But the trick is, you have to build it off site and you have to have the right factors to make it all work.”
Granted, the new portion of the Coleman Bridge is not as long as the 3,184-foot long Milton-Madison Bridge, however, Skanska built six sections weighing 4,000 tons each at Norfolk Harbor, then floated the sections 40 miles, across the Chesapeake Bay, to the bridge site and then, using floating cranes, lifted the sections into place, 90 feet above the water. Quite an engineering feat, when you consider that the Coleman Bridge provides crossing for 27,000 vehicles a day, compared to the 10,000 vehicles that cross here. The 80-year-old Milton-Madison Bridge has a current elevation of 95 feet but the elevation of the proposed new bridge is 90 feet.
Those “factors” to which Apaliski referred included weather, river elevation, flooding, depth, wind and enough room on the water to turn and lift the structure into place. It would also have to fit through the locks or dam en route to the site.
The Coleman Bridge replacement project cost $76 million but that was 15 years ago; by comparison, the Milton-Madison Bridge Project is estimated at $131 million.
Nevertheless, bridge engineers these days can be creative and many are risk-takers, Carr said. Asked about the Coleman Bridge example, Carr said: “While some of the geography and site location characteristics between the two projects are dramatically different, this is a very good example of how innovative that bridge construction contractors can be when offered incentives to complete a project. Some of the ‘lessons learned’ by Virginia Department of Transportation will certainly be applicable to the Milton-Madison Bridge.”
However, Carr added: “But contractors must deal with all sorts of potential problems – bad weather, flooding, damage to the barge, damaging a pier, dropping a truss, Coast Guard clearance to close the river while the job is being done...”
Such challenges only excite bridge engineers, who are always seeking the kind of project that will make their career, Apaliski said. His company built the original Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel in Virginia and Charleston, S.C.’s Cooper River Bridge, the longest stay cable bridge in the Northern Hemisphere. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel is considered one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World.
“You pay a premium for doing it faster,” he said. Although his company does not do work in the Midwest, he added: “It is a possibility (for a bridge builder here) to look at.”
He even suggested another way to do the job which involves erecting two false support works across the river and building the new superstructure on top of one. Then lift the old structure onto the other false works and place the new superstructure onto the existing piers.
Either way, the example of Virginia’s Coleman Bridge bodes well for a quick end to the challenge of solving the region’s critical crossing between Milton and Madison.
Did I mention it only took them nine days? That’s a bridge closure we could all live with.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.


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