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Two-Way Traffic Returns to Pontchartrain’s Twin Spans

Mon October 24, 2005 - National Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

Repairs to the Hurricane Katrina-damaged infrastructure of New Orleans, LA, took a major step forward Oct. 14, when one of the twin spans crossing Lake Pontchartrain opened to two-way traffic 17 days ahead of schedule.

While an early completion is an accomplishment even under normal circumstances, in this case it is especially noteworthy, since the work was being done under a “fast track” contract with a 45-day specification.

“Gov. [Kathleen] Blanco directed that we restore traffic on this vital route as quickly as possible,” said Johnny B. Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). “We are happy to get traffic moving again on I-10 17 days early at a substantial savings to the state.”

The contract to repair the spans that carry I-10 over Lake Pontchartrain was awarded to Boh Bros. Construction of New Orleans on Sept. 9. The total dollar amount was $31 million. The contract also offered a $75,000 bonus for each day completed ahead of schedule, with a 15-day cap. Money is provided by emergency funds through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

The spans are the main route connecting New Orleans and Slidel. Covering approximately 5.8 mi., the bridge is made of concrete with pre-cast segments, each weighing approximately 400 tons. The segments were severely damaged by the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“What happened to the Twin Spans is basically the same thing that happened to the bridge at Escambia in Florida after Ivan,” explained DOTD Spokesperson Mark Lambert. “Basically, the water swell underneath the bridge either misaligned the panels, or in some instances just totally knocked them out and sent them into the lake. It was necessary for us to establish some traffic on the spans as quickly as possible. Before people can get back into their homes — before they can try to get a normal life again — they have to have transportation. They have to be able to get to work. It’s vital to not just the economy, and not just the transportation system, but just to people’s daily lives to get that thing up again.”

Lambert noted that when the storm hit, approximately 40 percent of the panels were either misaligned or completely knocked into the water.

“It’s been described by a lot of people as looking like a bunch of dominoes poking out of the lake,” he said. “Every now and then, you come across a segment that is okay.”

Lambert noted that at one point, they actually found a car sitting on top of one of the segments. They realized that people had been trying to evacuate when the bridge was damaged.

“There were people on the bridge during the hurricane trying to evacuate,” he said. “I can only imagine being on that bridge — we’re talking three in morning, maybe — and a hurricane coming through. All of the sudden the segment right in front of you falls into the lake, and you look behind you, and the segment behind you has fallen into the lake. You’re sitting there on this little segment in your car in the middle of a hurricane. It’s very somber work.”

Lambert noted that they were fortunate to have some expert help.

“Within days of this happening, the Florida Department of Transportation flew in a team of engineers to meet with us, because they had been through this with the Escambia Bay Bridge,” he said. “Their help was invaluable to us. I can’t say enough about these guys, because they told us — here were the pitfalls that we went into, here are the problems that we had. I’m talking everything from construction methods to materials, to even dealing with the FEMA reimbursement process. There are so many issues when you’re trying to do a job like that — it’s almost mind-boggling to think about everything you have to do. The guys from Florida did a terrific job and they were very generous with their time and experience.”

The bridge work has been divided into three phases. Phase I, which has just been completed, involved establishing two-way traffic on the eastbound span. Lambert explained that the process involved taking the panels that were misaligned and placing them back into alignment.

“We’re testing to make sure that it’s safe — making sure that the bearings are good, and making sure that it’s structurally sound and it can handle traffic,” he said. “There were instances where the segments were actually knocked into the lake. We’re retrieving them, inspecting them, and if they’re in good shape, we’re reattaching them. If they’re not in good shape, then we are actually cannibalizing segments from the westbound span.”

Phase II involves starting at one end of the bridge and filling in wherever segments are needed.

“We’re going to take that all the way as far as we can go,” Lambert said. “I know we don’t have enough to finish the job, because some of these segments were lost [and] some of them were damaged and chipped, but when we get as far as we can go, we’ll finish the job with temporary bridge panels.”

The contract called for Phase II to be completed within 120 days of Sept. 12, which will be in January.

Phase III is a maintenance contract for the bridge panels until the replacement bridge is built, which is anticipated to take three years.

Lambert noted that Hurricane Rita cost crews four days of work.

“The water level got so high that obviously there was a lot of wave action,” he explained. “These are 400-ton concrete segments that we’re having to lift with a crane that’s on a barge. If that thing swings the wrong way and comes back too far, you’ve got a disaster on your hands with a crew out there.”

Working in an area devastated by a hurricane offers challenges not normally found on other jobs.

“You’ve got issues just making sure the crews have something to eat,” Lambert said. “There’s no sandwich shop just to run down to. The contractor has to make sure he can provide for basic needs of these crews as they’re out there working, because this is a 24/7 operation. They’re working during the day, they’re working at night, they’re working weekends. They’re very motivated to get this job done.”

According to Lambert, bids for completion of the new bridge structure will be taken in the first quarter of 2006.

“It will obviously be in the same location since it will be part of the Interstate 10 system,” he said, “but we’re going to elevate it so that it won’t be subject to that swell in case of a hurricane.” CEG

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