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Mathews Bridge Contractor Works Around the Clock

Mon June 04, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks

Every construction site has its share of safety concerns, but working hundreds of feet above the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., brings a different dimension to worker protection.

Fortunately, Tampa-based PCL Civil Constructors Inc., the prime contractor for the Mathews Bridge deck replacement project, knows a little something about high-wire bridge work. Regarded as one of the premier civil contractors in the United States, PCL specializes in bridge construction and repair. The low bidder for the Mathews Bridge project, the company also is working several other bridge projects across the country.

According to Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) spokesperson Mike Goldman, “PCL is a name contractor. They’re an experienced bridge builder.”

And that experience helps keep employees safe.

“On all our jobs, safety is a concern,” said Ryan Hamrick, PCL Mathews Bridge project manager. “Fall protection is a big concern on this job. Any type of edge work, we’re always tied off. With all the activities going on, keeping everything neat and orderly is a big issue, too.”

PCL is replacing 800 ft. (244 m) of metal grating on the bridge with an exodermic deck system — a steel grid filled with lightweight concrete. The system has been successfully installed on several bridges, including structures in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Tappan-Zee Bridge in New York, which is similar to the Mathews Bridge. Supports beneath and above the riding surface are being replaced and strengthened to provide a smoother ride across the bridge.

“We’ve got about 56,000 square feet of decking we’re replacing,” said Ankur Talwar, PCL manager of special projects. “We’ve also got about 2,500 square feet of barriers and rails to replace.”

Opened in April 1953, the Mathews Bridge was named after John E. Mathews, a Florida state legislator and chief justice of the 1955 Florida Supreme Court, who pushed for the bridge’s construction. In 2000, the FDOT replaced the original metal grating, which drew sharp criticism from motorists who claimed the new grating was unsafe.

“We put a substitute grating in and that drew concern,” Goldman said. “We heard from a variety of different sources. People were calling us. People did not feel comfortable riding across that bridge so they asked us to do something about it. It was a lightening rod issue. Some users said it was fine, but others had complaints.”

Two years ago, Goldman said, the FDOT presented a plan to replace the grating with an epoxy-like substance, similar to what’s used on aircraft carriers.

“About a week before bids were due from contractors we pulled it for one primary reason maintenance purposes,” Goldman said. “With the epoxy surface, how do you repair it? There were some major maintenance concerns so we pulled that and came up with the exodermic deck process.”

PCL was awarded the contract and divided the $12.9 million project into four phases:

• Phase I started in January and included removing barrier walls on both ends of the bridge and building crossovers for traffic shifts and the Phase II detour.

• Phase II, which started in April, closed the two eastbound traffic lanes to begin installing the new deck.

• Phase III includes installing the deck on the two westbound traffic lanes.

• Phase IV includes bridge painting, removing the work platform from under the bridge and any other finish work that may be necessary.

Phases II and III have a 90-day time limit. The overall project, which is scheduled for completion in October, is on schedule, Talwar said.

Besides being high above the river, Hamrick said two big challenges are the schedule and logistics.

“The schedule, obviously, working 24 hours a day and logistics, getting everything in place in such a small area,” Hamrick said. “Compared to other bridge projects, we have limited walk space. Access is a big issue. We have tool trailers we haul around.”

PCL is working three nine hour shifts, six days a week. It has approximately 55 workers on site.

Talwar said the company is using two carry deck cranes, one on each side of the bridge. The cranes, he said, are miniature hydraulic cranes designed to work in tight spaces.

“We’re using PCL-owned tractor trailers to haul all the materials,” Talwar said. “We rent the carry decks and some other equipment.”

Hamrick said they’ve rented equipment from Ring Power Inc., Sims Crane, Hertz and United Rental. “All gave good service, no problems,” Hamrick said.

Talwar said several subcontractors are working on the project, including Bob’s Barricades Inc.; Gemstone LLC, a Key West-based painting company; Amber Construction Company; Jacksonville Machine & Repair Inc.; Concrete Cutting and Breaking; Ameriseal Highway Striping; and Blasters Inc.

“Jacksonville Machine did some of the structural steel work,” Talwar said. “Concrete Cutting and Breaking did the detour work. Gemstone built the decking under the bridge. That thing is rated 25 PSE. We’re not putting any materials on it, but men are able to walk readily and comfortably on it.”

When complete, the deck will make driving a whole lot smoother for motorists, but the early stages of the project created big headaches for drivers trying to get in and out of downtown Jacksonville. A major east-west traffic artery, approximately 66,000 vehicles use the bridge daily. A 90-day detour allowing westbound traffic only sent those vehicles to the adjacent Hart Bridge during the evening rush hour.

The resulting traffic jams enraged commuters, turning 15-minute commutes into an hour or more. The outcry reached all the way to Gov. Charlie Christ’s office, which appealed to the FDOT to alter its original plan and do a lane switch, allowing eastbound evening commuters to use the westbound lanes. After a visit from FDOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, the decision was made to alter the detour, adding $1.5 million to the cost of the project, including a $625,000 increase in costs to PCL.

“We’re going to Plan B,” said FDOT District Secretary Charles Baldwin after driving the detour route with Kopelousos.

The two lanes that remain open on the bridge switch to eastbound from 3 to 7 p.m. during the week. Westbound traffic uses the bridge from 7:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and all day on the weekends. It takes a crew of 50-some workers to move the signs and barricades. Both PCL and the FDOT agree the shift has eased traffic snarls impacted by the project.

“The cycle is working very well,” Talwar said. “To manage this job in 90 days, we brought 17 salaried staff on site and we have eight, nine pickup trucks on the job.”

As the halfway mark on the 90-day detour approaches, Goldman said they’re preparing to assess how the work is progressing.

“Right now we’re going to have an assessment after 45 days to see where we are,” Goldman said. “That 90-days will be close but we can’t say if it’s going to be exactly 90 days. A lot depends on the weather, but they’re working around to clock six days a week to get it done.”

Which is good news for Jacksonville commuters. CEG

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