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Nation’s First ARRA Funded Project Nears Completion

Thu April 29, 2010 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin

Despite wet weather and a fluctuating river, America’s first stimulus fund project is lumbering toward an on-time completion and should be open to traffic this summer.

The new bridge under construction near the tiny town of Tuscumbia, Mo., population: 224, was heralded as the nation’s first project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Thanks to close monitoring of the events in Washington by Missouri Department of Transportation staff, earth-moving equipment sprung into action just minutes after President Barack Obama signed the legislation launching the stimulus program last year.

Today the bridge is nearing completion, and vehicles will be driving on it in just a couple of months although the entire project, including removal of the existing bridge, won’t come to a complete end until October.

The old bridge that carries Routes 17 and 52 over the Osage River in Miller County centered in the middle of the state was built in the 1930s.

“Believe it or not, that bridge was built back during FDR’s New Deal, Works Progress Administration (WPA) days (and now an Economic Recovery Act project is actually replacing that bridge,” Roger Schwartze, MoDOT District engineer, said. “That’s kind of unique.”

The new bridge, which is being built right beside the old one, has three spans of steel plate girders spanning the main part of the river and approach spans on both sides of the river, Schwartze said. The approach spans have pre stressed concrete girders to support the bridge, he added.

The bridge carries just over 3,000 vehicles each day, Keith Miller, project superintendent for APAC-Kansas Inc., the contractor on the $9 million project, said.

The old two-lane truss bridge is very narrow—only 20 ft. wide. The new lanes will be 11 ft. wide with three-ft. wide shoulders. “It will handle the traffic much better as well as the farm equipment that does go across from time to time,” Miller said.

“All bridges have some sort of complication to them,” he said.

For him that complication came as wet weather and those fluctuating water levels in the river. The bridge is actually downstream from the Bagnell Dam, which is owned by Ameren UE (formerly Union Electric Company) and generates power for the Lake of the Ozarks area.

The amount of water let out by the dam varies according to the utility company’s generation demands, Schwartze said. “When they are generating or not generating power, the river’s water level fluctuates up and down and that was a challenge for the contractor to get those river piers built in the water. Their barges kept going up and down on them as much as eight to 10 ft. a day. That was the biggest challenge they had and they fought that all last summer and into the winter.”

Miller agreed. “When they let water out, I’ve got a crane on a barge and a tugboat out here in the middle of the river and if the river is moving real swift, it makes it real hard for me to get in and out of here because of what could go wrong,” he said noting that the new bridge is being placed upstream from the old bridge.

“Because of the river currents, if we’re moving our crane into position, if we get trouble, we’re going be into the old bridge,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated building a bridge upstream from an existing bridge than downstream.

“The major challenge is the river fluctuation and the location of the thing but for the most part everything else is relatively simple. That’s been my biggest problem—the river fluctuation because of the rain and also the power generation coming from Bagnell Dam.”

With limited staging area on terra firma, the contractor has a crane on a barge in the water and one on each side of the riverbank.

While cranes on barges aren’t unusual in bridge construction, Miller and his team had to go the extra mile to get those barges there. Access from the Missouri River to the Osage is inhibited to an old lock that’s not in service anymore, he said.

That meant that the barges needed for the project couldn’t get to the site via the water. So Miller did what had to be done—he trucked in two barges in about 20 pieces, assembled them at the river for use on the project.

For Miller it was all in a day’s work. “There was really no other way of getting our equipment in there other than trucking it in and setting it down with a crane,” he said. “We actually had a crane set up on the river bank and the crane will pick the pieces up off of the truck and set them down in the water.

“We had to assemble the barge and then put our crane together and drive the crane out on it.”

It was, he said, an unusual process “for this part of the country” adding, “Usually you have enough access. You can put a barge out in the Missouri River or use a barge that’s already in the water. Where this job is located, access is pretty limited so we had to actually truck our barges in and assemble them on the water. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle.”

One of the barges was for the crane, Miller said. The other was originally for the drill to cut the shafts in the middle of the river but instead he converted the drill shaft barge into a manlift barge “so I can do the girder work and do the column work and stuff like that,” he said.

The equipment includes a Triple 7 Manitowoc crane on the water, a 300-ton M250 Manitowoc and a 338 Link-Belt that built the piers on the south side and also serviced the bridge deck on the south side, he said.

The quality of rock crews encountered on the north side of the project caused them to drill the shafter deeper than originally planned.

“The rock we encountered wasn’t sound rock,” Miller said. “It was good rock but it wasn’t good enough so we actually had to extend the drill shaft about four feet.”

The 3-in. hole drill for the test core that was the base of the design of the bridge didn’t tell the entire story—not an unusual scenario, he said.

“We put nine-foot (diameter) drill shafts in so we’re cutting a nine-foot hole. Sometimes we’ll encounter some rock that isn’t as good as they thought originally and that’s what happened on the north drill shafts.”

Precipitation presented it own challenges.

“We had a lot of rain last summer,” Miller said. “Even over the fall we had a lot of rain and then we had a lot of snow this winter. It’s been beating us up pretty good.”

The rock below the river’s surface also provided a surprise for the construction team.

“They hit some extraordinarily hard rock in the bottom of this river that they were really not expecting,” Schwartze said. “The hardness of the rock was more of a challenge than they expected.”

In fact, the team had to “modify their plan for construction on how they did their drilled shafts,” he said. “They had to have longer casings to try to get up above that fluctuation in the river.”

APEC bought a new concrete finish machine to use on the bridge because the bridge is actually going up on a five percent grade, Schwartze said. “When you’re placing concrete on a new bridge deck going up on a grade, that does present construction challenges for the contractor.”

The river is bordered by a rock bluff on one side and a floodplain on the other, Schwartze said “That’s all river bottom (on the floodplain side) so one of the things that was done was the rock on the side that had the rock bluff was hauled across the bridge and used to create fill for the opposite side,” he said. “There was a lot of truck traffic back and forth every day on the old bridge—and the old bridge is in very poor condition.”

In fact, the bridge is in such bad condition that Pete Rahn, Missouri Department of Transportation Director, said on an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Web site that is a “one-year report on state transportation successes under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” that the bridge is in “serious condition.”

The current structure is “shored up with a temporary steel structure bracing one of the supporting bridge columns,” the report said. “ It is common to see huge chunks of concrete fall below as cars pass over the bridge, which is closed now to heavy truck traffic.”

“The contractor has made great progress since he started,” Schwartz said. Both he and Miller anticipate an on-time completion later this year.

“We should be on schedule,” Miller said. “There shouldn’t be a reason we won’t make schedule at this time although I’ve lost a lot of time in the river because of the wet weather we had after the job started. We’ve set all the steel in the last unit. Hopefully, we’ll make a deck pour on this last unit in three weeks.”

As the first stimulus project to get under way after the president signed the legislation on Feb. 17, 2009, the bridge gathered international attention as the first shovelful of earth were moved.

“I’ve been on Japanese TV, and French radio,” Miller said. That’s on top of the Good Morning, America, CNN, Fox and other national coverage the project has garnered.

“It was more than what I really cared for,” Miller said. “It was more than what I bargained for. I told my company I build bridges for a living. I was not cut out for this.”

Things “calmed down quite a bit” after the initial story broke, Miller said. But there was an uptick in media interest when the project crossed the one-year anniversary of the stimulus bill signing last month.

“I hope it stays that way,” he said hopefully. But then he adds ruefully: “But when they open this thing up, it’s going to come back up again.”

Still in all, Miller is happy with the project. “The project has been a very good project,” he said. “It’s something that’s very much needed by the folks in the area because this is a commuter route that people use. It’s 28 mi. to the nearest bridge up and down stream so the detour around this is quite a distance. It does serve a fairly large area and is certainly important for that reason.”

And what about the main reason for the stimulus package—jobs? Miller says some 240 people have jobs because of the project. “That includes support workers like those that are making concrete, girders and fabricated the steel,” he said.

Miller’s heard rumors in the area that the bridge wouldn’t have been built without the stimulus money.

“No, they were going to build the bridge but the government gave them an accelerated program,” he said.

But plans were already under way for the new bridge although the funding was not all in place when the stimulus funds came along, Miller said. “They’ll design a bridge from 5, 6, sometimes 10 years out from when it’s going to be built.

“This bridge was already in the works and was already through the design process. The whole process a project has to go through before it’s actually let—this one was the closest to that process.”

Miller also hears the criticism about the bridge itself.

“I keep hearing people say, “Ah, it’s a bridge to nowhere.’ Well, it may be but it’s going to one of our military bases that’s taking care of this country,” he said.

“This is a major link to Fort Leonard Wood. I don’t know if people realize that or not but all of Fort Leonard Wood’s materials —or most of it—and trucks go through this route. I see pump trucks going across this bridge once or twice a week because of the work that’s going on at Fort Leonard Wood and this is a main thorough way to get there.”

Miller says he doesn’t like to get caught up in talk about why and how the bridge was selected for stimulus funding.

“It’s none of my business,” he said. “My job is to build the thing. The company gets the job. It’s my job to build it.”

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