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Calcasieu River Bridge Receives Makeover

Tue December 13, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Bill Murphy

Major work on the Interstate 10 bridge spanning the Calcasieu River in Louisiana will begin after Thanksgiving, when pins on 48 girders will be replaced.

The pin-replacement work is complicated because Topcor Services LLC, the general contractor for the project, will be removing 4-in. (10.2 cm) pins, enlarging the hole and inserting 4.5-in. (11.4 cm) pins, said Patrick Bernier, a division manager overseeing the project for the Baton Rouge-based company. The intent is to make the bridge sturdier and safer.

“The new pins will provide a better load transfer,” he said.

This portion of the bridge repair project is slated to be completed by Dec. 22. The work is part of a larger, $5.7 million repair and maintenance project of the Calcasieu River bridge connecting Lake Charles and Westlake in southwest Louisiana. The work is a Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development (La. DOTD) project.

The overall project began in August and should be completed anywhere from February to April. The 60-year-old bridge will be spot cleaned and painted, anchor bolts and handrails will be repaired, road surface joints will be installed, resealed and damaged rivets will be replaced and missing dueling pistols that adorn the handrail will be replaced.

The bridge will remain in use during the work, but four lanes of traffic will be reduced to two lanes at times. During the pin replacement phase, Topcor Services will close one lane of traffic in each direction, place shoring I-beams over each girder and tie them to the structure as it is worked on.

The 4-in. pins will be removed, and the hole will be enlarged using custom-built drills. A new 4.5-in. pin will be inserted after the drill frame is removed.

The final step will be to insert new .875-in. (2.2 cm), A325 structural bolts in the pin plate connections, Bernier said.

“We will install I beams over the girders in one lane of the road surface so traffic can be maintained,” Bernier said. “Once the shoring beams are installed we can take apart the current structural connections.”

MH Precision in St. Louis, he said, designed and built two custom-made drills for the hole-widening work.

“The drills mount directly to the bolt pattern, and accurately place the cutting head dead center of the existing four-inch holes,” he said.

Two-thirds of the long, cantilever bridge — it is about 1.25 mi. (2 km) in length — is above land. The other third spans the slow-moving waters of the Calcasieu. It is a 135-ft. (41 m) drop from the bridge to the water.

Workers scraping rust often rely on personnel lifts and suspended man-baskets, which hang from the bridge. Work is easier in the areas where the bridge is above land — personnel lifts are placed below a repair area.

But this work has been complicated because some of these areas are wetlands, so extra measures have been taken to comply with environmental regulations, said Kristi Sanford, a consultant and project engineer at ECM, a Metering, La.-based company that provides construction management services. The Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development hired ECM to serve as project monitor.

Managers sometimes have difficulty finding spots in the wetlands where they can situate their equipment, Sanford said.

Topcor brought in two of its own personnel lifts, a Genie 60 and Genie 80, Bernier said. It also has rented about eight personnel lifts from RSC Equipment Rental in Louisiana.

Suspended baskets were rented from Max Access in Houston.

Air compressors and rivet busters were among the tools also needed for the job.

“It’s just regular, old construction equipment,” Bernier said. “It’s a neat little job, but there’s not a lot of specialty equipment with the exception of the drills.”

Barges are used while working on the bridge above the water. A platform has been built below the part of the bridge that is above water, allowing workers to scrape rust and paint without fear of falling in, Sanford said.

Eighteen wheelers and other traffic roar overhead as painters and workers go about their tasks. Bernier said, “It’s not a quiet bridge, that’s for sure.”

The bridge will be painted nickel, its color when it was built six decades ago. “I don’t think that it’s ever been fully blasted and painted,” Bernier said.

Construction of the bridge began in 1948. It opened in September 1951, but work was not completed until the next year.

The bridge was part of U.S. 90 and only later was incorporated into the interstate system when I-10 opened.

It was named the World War II Memorial Bridge. But there had been earlier discussions about naming it after Jean Laffite, the legendary pirate who fought with distinction for the United States during the War of 1812. He and his band of privateers distinguished themselves during the Battle of New Orleans. Legend has it that some of Laffite’s treasure is buried in the Lake Charles area.

To honor Laffite and his band of privateers, the bridge’s handrails were decorated with 5,000 pairs of crossed dueling pistols, Sanford said. Many locals refer to the span as “the Pistol Bridge,” Bernier said.

More than 100 pistols will be replaced or relocated from damaged handrail to new handrail sections, and 37 pistols are missing from other sections of handrail. Some pistols were knocked off the handrail during accidents while others were stolen, Bernier said.

“Some had been cut off by somebody,” he said. “The pistols are really cool. Everybody wants a set.”

Topcor Services sent a set of original pistols to Bama Foundry in Montgomery, Ala. The foundry created a mold and is casting new pistols that will be identical to the originals, and these will replace missing ones, Bernier said.

Sanford said the project appears like it will be completed in April. But Steve Jiles, who is overseeing the project as District No. 7 administrator for the La. DOTD, said the pace of work will be picking up, and crews are working seven days a week. He said he anticipates that the project will be finished by Feb. 12.

Long-term plans of the La. DOTD call for the bridge to be replaced by a new bridge in the coming years, Jiles said. Sanford said Louisiana could build this new bridge within five to 10 years.

“The bridge is safe, but it is too narrow according to modern highway standards,” Bernier said. “And it is too steep on its approaches.”

What will happen to the bridge if a new bridge is built is unknown, he said.

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