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Texas Historic Rainbow Bridge Gets Facelift

The bridge carries close to 27,000 cars and trucks with heavy loads on a daily basis.

Thu February 05, 2015 - West Edition
Irwin Rapoport

The Rainbow Bridge, a cantilever structure that was built in 1938 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, is now undergoing a two-year re-painting via a $26.6 million contract awarded by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) to Wilmington, N.C.-based Saffo Contractors Inc.

This two-lane bridge allows for state Highway 87 and state Highway 73 to connect Port Arthur in Jefferson County on the southwest bank of the Neches River with Bridge City in Orange County on the northeast bank.

Until the construction of the two-lane Veterans Memorial Bridge (cable-stayed) in 1990, the Rainbow Bridge carried traffic in both directions. Today the bridge carries close to 27,000 cars and trucks with heavy loads on a daily basis.

“We’re completely repainting the bridge and doing all the repairs that need to be made,” said Harriet Sarah Dupre, public relations office of the beaumont district of TXDOT. “It’s a very well-known bridge and a symbol of the area. It meant a lot when it was built and it was a huge accomplishment. Some people have said that has enough steel to build a battleship, so it is a huge bridge.

“We did a complete renovation of the bridge in the early 1990s,” she added, “and the work that will be done this time will concentrate on the nuts, bolts, and any of the beams that need to be replaced. These types of repairs are done about every 20 years.”

TXDOT takes bridge maintenance seriously and all of its bridges are inspected every two years.

“The Rainbow Bridge is inspected every year,” said Dupre. “It’s an important bridge and it carries a lot of traffic because we have a lot of chemical plants in our area and a lot of people live in Bridge City and work in Port Arthur.”

As the work continues, TXDOT will keep one lane closed and DOT inspectors will be monitoring the work on a constant basis.

“We want to make sure that everything is done correctly — that the bridge is safe and that drivers are going to have a safe drive every day when the renovation is completed,” said Dupre.

Saffo Contractors operates in many states, specializing in industrial painting (plants, chemical, pulp and paper, etc.) and bridge maintenance and rehabilitation. Nick Saffo, the owner and president of the firm, points out that 85 percent of the work force on the site is based in Texas.

“This project calls for the total removal of the bridge’s paint system and the installation of a new three-coat paint system,” said Saffo, “and we have several line items for bolt repair and rivet replacement and structural steel repair. Our crews arrived last December and we have just begun the process of rigging the bridge. The major challenge is the rigging — it is extremely difficult because of the bits — the legs that are holding up the bridge, and the other challenge is the weather conditions in Texas — high humidity, rain, and wind.”

The first step for Saffo will be to remove the paint — not an easy task.

“There are different spans and sections and some are easier then others,” said Saffo. “The approach spans, which account for 28 spans on the north and south sides, should be blasted and painted within two to three months. As you get into the truss spans — there are six of them, because they are deeper, you have to rig at different levels for accessibility. Safety is key issue on this job.

Successful painting requires good conditions on a multi-day basis to account for various coats and drying times between them.

“The first coat [primer coat] is a zinc-based paint and normally you can get back on it within 24 to 48 hours,” said Saffo. “Then you apply your intermediate coat, the striped coat, and finally the top coat. You can paint 24/7, but it depends upon the conditions. In the summertime, your conditions may be more favorable in the evening because of the heat and in winter they may be more favorable in the day because of the cooler conditions.

“We maximize every hour to get the job done,” he added.

TXDOT inspections of the bridge have created a list of rivets and nuts to be replaced and repaired, but as the paint is removed, Saffo anticipates that additional sections of the structure will require repairs. When possible additions are found, TXDOT inspectors are brought to the location to determine whether they need to be added to the list.

Re-painting begins after the section of bridge super-structure is dealt with. When the work on the bridge peaks, Saffo expects to have between 40 and 50 workers on site (Saffo and subcontractors). At the moment, there are about 25 people on site setting up the rigging.

Approximately 375 tons (340 t) of paint will be removed from the bridge, and with the lead paint having been removed in the 1990s, it is not considered to be hazardous. Saffo expects that 10,000 to 12,000 gal. (37,854 to 45,425 L) of primer will be used, with similar amounts for the intermediate coats and the top coats.

The firm has an office/yard and laydown area in The Groves, nearly 10 mi. (16 km) from the job site. Mechanics are brought on site when needed.

“Aside from routine maintenance,” said Saffo, “the main repairs will likely be for compressors that malfunction, and we have several vendors close by that are helping us.”

Daily inspections by operators are key to maintaining the equipment and vehicles. Electronic monitoring also is crucial.

“Everything that happens on the job via the equipment is sent electronically through a share file system,” said Saffo, “so we’ll know all about here at the home office, at the field office, and obviously, the superintendents know about any problems immediately.

“We’ve had this system for five years and I have some very innovative staff that put all this technology together, including the schedules, safety reports, contract documents, contingency documents, and plans,” he added, “so if you’re in the field and you need to take a look at a blueprint, you can open up a share file on your laptop or ipad. TXDOT and other DOTs also are going electronic for reports to keep with the work that is performed daily and to help resolve issues rapidly when they come up.”

Saffo added that electronic monitoring of equipment and vehicles is helping to reduce maintenance costs and extend lifespans via timely and efficient replacement of oils and hydraulics, and alarms that serve as reminders for oil changes and potential equipment breakdowns.

Each piece of equipment has a file that covers its history and repairs.

“One of our most valuable assets is our equipment and maintaining it properly is a must for us to deliver our projects on time,” said Saffo.

TXDOT has recognized Saffo Contractors as a prequalified contractor. Nick Saffo and his team take pre-planning for projects and the choice of project seriously.

“We studied the whole market of all the states, including projects coming out of TXDOT and reviewed them to see if we wanted to be involved with them,” said Saffo. “Even though we are prequalified, you still have to be the lowest bid in any kind of state or federal project. For the Rainbow Bridge, we did a field trip and it fit. We put in a successful bid and we’re now involved in a very interesting and challenging project where we will hone our skills and put best practices into action.”

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