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Morris Group Builds Safer Bridge Over Blackwater Creek

Thu April 24, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

Crossing Blackwater Creek on AL 69 in Walker County is a harrowing experience, involving a steep hill, a blind curve and a narrow, circa 1932 bridge.

After years of delays — the word locally is that the project as originally designed would have affected a Confederate cemetery — work is well under way to change that scary ride into a pleasant crossing.

“What the job is going to do is it’s going to take a crooked road and a bridge in a blind curve at the bottom, it’s going to take most of the hill out and all of the curve out, so it’s essentially a straight shot,” said Justin L. Taylor, project manager of The Morris Group Inc. in Birmingham, Ala.

The Morris Group was low bidder on the $7.24 million contract for the project, which involves bridge replacement and relocation of AL 69 at Blackwater Creek about 10 mi. (16 km) north of Jasper, said Taylor, who grew up in the area and still lives there. He commutes over the old bridge going to and coming from the office.

He said the job is about 1 mi. (1.6 km) long and covers about 9 acres (3.6 ha) in the mostly rural county.

Work began in June 2007 and is about 66 percent complete, Taylor said, noting the project reached a milestone when workers finished setting all the bridge girders in early April.

The new two-lane bridge will be 1,215 ft. (370 m) long and 115 ft. (35 m) high at its highest point over Blackwater Creek, which feeds into the Warrior River.

While it won’t add traffic lanes, the new bridge will be about 44 ft. (13 m) wide inside the barrier rails, compared to the current bridge’s 24-ft. (7.3 m) width, and will feature the emergency lanes the current bridge lacks, Taylor said.

The project also includes building about 4,000 ft. (1,220 m) of new road to link the new bridge to the existing roadway, he said. About 2/3 of that road is on the north side of the bridge and about 1/3 of it is on the south side.

The job includes the grading, drainage work, base work and paving as well as removal of the current bridge, about 200 yd. (183 m) upstream, after the new one is finished.

The road work has been going on simultaneously with the bridge work and is at the subgrade stage, close to calling in the pavers, Taylor said.

Work is moving along well and is on target for the February 2009 completion deadline, he said. While there are no incentives for finishing the job early, there are liquidated damages for going over the allotted time.

The company has 19 employees on the job working one 10-hour shift five days a week.

It is using three company-owned Link-Belt cranes — an RTC 8050 50-ton (45 t) rubber-tire hydraulic crane, a 218HSL 110-ton (100 t) crawler crane and a 218H II 110-ton crawler crane — all purchased from Atlantic & Southern Equipment, Taylor said.

The cranes are being used to build the substructure —columns, struts, cross braces and caps — and to set the bridge girders and build superstructure, including the bridge decking, he said.

Other hard workers on the job include a Caterpillar 320 excavator purchased from Thompson Tractor, a Komatsu 220 excavator purchased from Tractor and Equipment, a Komatsu D39PX-21A bulldozer purchased from Tractor and Equipment, and a Case 580 M backhoe loader purchased from Cowin Equipment Company, he said.

This will be the second job on which the company used a specialized piece of equipment — its Bidwell transverse screed, which transverses the bridge from one end to the other rather than longitudinally, Taylor said.

“It’s a great piece of equipment,” he said, noting they used the screed on dual bridges in northern Alabama that were otherwise very similar to this project.

It will be used for pouring the bridge deck, Taylor said.

And while it’s not for small bridge work, it is much faster and more efficient on a bigger bridge job, he said.

There are a number of subcontractors on the job, including Carcel & G. Construction of Logan, Ala., which did the earthwork, and Russo Corporation of Birmingham, which performed the drill shaft work, Taylor said.

Russo Corporation workers used a 110-ton Kobelco crane and an 80-ton (72 t) Link-Belt 138H II crane, he said.

Dunn Construction of Birmingham will do the paving, and Abramson LLC of Birmingham will pour the barrier rails, he said. And there also will be some other smaller subcontractors.

The job features several challenges, Taylor said.

“The job site is very steep, over a 100-foot wide creek, with the bridge being over 100 feet high,” he said. “Girder erection was challenging. Erosion control was also challenging on such a steep site.”

They’re approaching 20,000 tons (18,140 t) of riprap, bringing the project about $800,000 over budget due to the additional rock, said Taylor, who said the project was bid using parameters drawn up several years ago that included a minimal amount of riprap.

“The state is really re-evaluating projects as far as erosion control,” he said. “That’s kind of a big issue today.”

Taylor said the Alabama Department of Transportation’s third division has worked well with them to ensure the project will have a minimal environmental impact, and, with steep slopes running right into the waterway, they’ve taken a lot of steps to reduce runoff and turbidity.

The additional riprap and other anti-erosion measures have proven their worth already, doing their job in the face of severe storms that have moved through the area recently, he said.

Crossing the creek brought its own challenges, Taylor added.

“We constructed an elevated work bridge, which spanned the creek and minimized impact to the creek,” he said.

The work bridge is used as a creek crossing so that equipment can go from one side to the other and so that the girder can be constructed, he said. It also keeps construction equipment off the existing road, adding to the safety of the job site.

Because the project is being built downstream from the existing bridge, the road remains open with no delays for motorists, Taylor said.

More than 250,000 cu. yd. (191,000 cu m) of earth have been moved on the job, with 210,000 cu. yd. (160,600 cu m) hauled offsite, he said.

“They essentially took about 60 feet off the hill,” Taylor said.

Most of the super-sandy material was moved with dozers, large excavators and rippers, he said, though Carcel & G. had to drill and blast a small quantity.

The job calls for 3,700 cu. yd. (2,800 cu m) of concrete and 8,000 tons (7,300 t) of asphalt, Taylor said.

There are nine 72-in. (183 cm) concrete girders on the bridge, each weighing about 112,000 lbs. (50,800 kg), he said. The girders on spans 2 through 8 are 135 ft. (41 m) long, and the girders on the two end spans, 1 and 9, are 136 ft. (41 m) long.

It was only natural for The Morris Group to bid on the project, Taylor said.

“Bridge work is our bread and butter, and this size job fits our company perfectly,” he said.

The project couldn’t come soon enough for local residents, Taylor said.

“It’s a dangerous area,” he said. Taylor’s wife flipped her vehicle there a few years ago, and while she survived and is fine, there have been several fatal accidents in that area.

He said it’s his understanding that the project was delayed for many years due to a Confederate cemetery. The project limits were redefined to avoid this area before it was bid, so the situation never affected the job, he said.

The new bridge will actually be the third to cross Blackwater Creek in the area, Taylor said.

This will be a job to remember and Taylor already has special plans for a memento of the project.

He said he plans to take a photo of the remains of the first bridge, further downstream; some of the old rock columns and abutments are still standing, he’s told. He’ll hang that photo in his office along with a snapshot of his grandmother as a teen sitting on the circa 1932 bridge (though, disappointingly, it doesn’t include much of the bridge) and a photo of the completed new bridge. CEG

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