Worker Shortage Felt at Choctaw Point Terminal

Tue October 11, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

While its surge flooded downtown Mobile, AL, and winds mowed down trees, ripped up signs and roofs, and caused widespread power outages throughout the area, Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause substantial damage at the Port of Mobile’s Choctaw Point container terminal construction site, an Alabama State Port Authority spokeswoman said.

But storm damage to the west and the monumental cleanup and reconstruction efforts are wreaking havoc on contractor American Bridge’s efforts to get the job done on time and at projected costs, said Mark Bell, senior project manager of the company’s Tampa, FL-based maritime division.

“It will completely tap manpower and resources in this area,” said Bell, adding they’ll be facing major challenges but will do whatever it takes to meet the contract deadline and four milestones on which a fellow contractor’s work depends.

Bell estimated that approximately half a billion dollars worth of bridge work will be needed because of Katrina. And those jobs will require the same types of workers, materials and equipment that the wharf construction does.

American Bridge, one of several contractors working on the Choctaw Point Terminal project, won a $22.3 million contract for stage 1 construction of a 2,000-ft. (610 m) deep-water wharf and bulkhead for the new container terminal.

The terminal, which will increase the port’s container capacity more than eightfold, is part of the Port Authority’s $300-million port-wide development program, according to Judy Adams, manager of media relations and economic development of the Alabama State Port Authority.

The Choctaw Point Terminal is expected to be open and operational by mid-2007, Adams said.

After three years of environmental review, environmental cleanup and some land acquisition, the permitting process was completed in March 2005 and actual site work began in May.

Two parts of the project are being done simultaneously: American Bridge is driving piles while Knoxville, TN-based Phillips and Jordan Inc. is doing the site stabilization work, she said.

The first stage of the project is to construct the container yard and create access to the facility. The second stage is to build an in-terminal rail and intermodal yard.

The third stage would be expansion, probably of the container terminal, in areas set aside for expansion should the need arise, she said.

When the container yard is completed, Adams said, it will have an annual capacity of 650,000 TEUs, or 20-ft. equivalent units, referring to size of the containers.

“That’s a conservative estimate,” she said.

Capacity also depends on the final design, which will be determined to meet the needs of a public-private partnership currently in negotiation, Adams said.

The Choctaw Point container terminal project will consist of the 2,000-ft. wharf and bulkhead, paving of the yard — up to 120 acres (49 ha) — installation of cranes and various other equipment and an interchange or truck access gate, she said.

There will be no buildings on the site.

Choctaw Point will boost the Port of Mobile’s container capacity by more than eight times, feeding the demand surveys have shown exists, Adams said.

The only container terminal now at the Port of Mobile, Port Authority Pier 2, is 16 acres (6.5 ha) with a capacity of approximately 75,000 TEUs, Adams said.

Adams said there was no destruction from Katrina at the job site, and the project is proceeding on schedule.

Concrete Wharf Construction

American Bridge started its part of the project — installing a combination wall and putting a concrete wharf on it — in June, Bell said.

The work for the new container-handling dock structure includes the driving of approximately 1,900 linear ft. (580 m) of sheetpile and combination (Pipe-Z) wall, including prestressed concrete batter piles, and a pipe-supported reinforced concrete deck of approximately 120-by-1,000 ft. (37-by-305 m), including crane rails, bollards and fenders, Bell said.

The terminal will have two 1,000-ft. berths served by four gantry cranes located on a 92-acre (37 ha) site within the Port of Mobile with immediate access to the two interstate systems (Interstate 10 and Interstate 65), five Class 1 railroads and approximately 15,000 mi. (24,000 km) of inland waterway connections, he said.

The company will do whatever it has to do to make its July 2006 deadline, Bell said.

Job Harder, More Expensive

But by making materials, equipment and qualified workers harder to come by, Katrina will make it much more difficult and costly than envisioned at bid, meaning lower revenues than planned, he said.

This year’s active hurricane season, including several named tropical storms and hurricanes that affected the Gulf Coast, caused a few weeks of lost time on the job, Bell said.

“The storms have been kicking our butts,” he said. “You lose two or three days every time a storm comes by,” because you have to stop work and move the barges and equipment to ride out the storm.

Still, due to split crews and seven-day weeks even before Katrina, the job was only approximately three weeks behind as of Sept. 26, said Bell, noting that’s considered pretty good for a project of this size.

“Katrina’s the one that hurt us the most,” he said.

The company’s concrete pile supplier, Gulf Coast Pre-Stress Inc. in Pass Christian, MS, was devastated by the storm, with 8 ft. (2.4 m) of floodwater submerging its cranes and other equipment, Bell said, but the piles are there for the delivering once the company is up and running.

Even then, storm damage made it impossible to get a barge and tugboat in and out, Bell said. Several bridges along the Intercoastal Waterway route were rendered impassible.

Once the bridge repairs are made, they’ll need to get a tugboat, Bell said. And they’re all being used on cleanup and salvage work.

Then there’s the manpower issue.

Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors are paying so much above what was the pre-hurricane going rate for qualified workers to repair bridges and other maritime damage that American Bridge has already lost workers on the Choctaw Point job, Bell said.

Five employees quit in one week to work for a FEMA contractor in Mississippi paying $20 an hour plus a per diem, he said.

“My whole masonry gang is gone,” Bell said. “The more of these bridge jobs that get let, the more I’m going to lose.”

It’s just supply and demand, he said. “We’ll have to adjust salaries … to make sure it gets done.”

There’s also an equipment crunch due to the storm, Bell said.

“There isn’t a barge left in any fleet. They’re all leased out,” he said.

American Bridge currently is working on the first berth, featuring 1,000 ft. of wharf.

As of Sept. 26, the company was in contract negotiations for the second phase of the project, which will be close to the size of the first phase.

Lots of Iron

Equipment on the piledriving part of the job, according to Bell, included an American Piledriving Equipment (APE) D62 single-acting diesel hammer and an APE 150 vibratory hammer, both rented from APE in Florida; a Manitowoc 4100 Series 2 crane rented from Essex Crane Rental Corp. in Louisiana; a 180-ft. long by 54-ft. wide spud barge rented from McDonough Marine Service; two 3-stage, 6-in. jet pumps, used for jetting piles into the ground, rented from Conmaco/Rector LP; and a 375 air compressor rented from United Rentals.

Also on the piledriving detail are a 4-cu.-yd. (3 cu m), heavy-duty clam bucket; a small crew boat to shuttle men to and from the work barge; a 10- by 40-ft. (3 by 12 m) self-propelled carpenter barge (with a 150-hp engine on the back), used to shuttle materials and tools from shore to the work barge; and two 400 amp welding machines, Bell said. All are owned by American Bridge.

Working on concrete installation are a Manitowoc 3900W rented from Essex; a 110- by 50-ft. (33.5 by 15 m) deck barge and two 120- by 35-ft. (37 by 10.7 m) service barges, all rented from McDonough; two 400-amp welding machines and a 185 air compressor, both rented from United Rentals.

On one of the service barges is a Terex 30-ton (27 t) hydraulic crane, and there’s an additional carpenter barge with two 300-amp welding machines. All are owned by American Bridge.

P&H Construction Corp. of Mobile, subcontracted to install the Pipe-Z wall, is using a 110- by 50-ft. (33.5 by 15-m) spud barge, an American Crane 9310, an APE 200 vibratory hammer with a caisson head double clamp for driving pipe and an APE 150 vibratory hammer with single clamp for driving the sheet pile.

A 300-ton (270 t) Terex hydraulic crane, rented from Maxim Crane Works, is being used in the yard for loading and unloading.

While American Bridge has equipment rental companies with which it regularly does business, slim availability forced them to shop around more than usual, Bell said.

Rental equipment is a substantial part of the job.

“When we were getting started with this project, to find cranes and barges was just a nightmare. It’s even worse now,” Bell said.

He said he’s been happy with all the companies they went with. “Service was good. I don’t have any complaints,” Bell said.

To keep from losing time, American Bridge employed a mechanic on the job site to take care of maintenance and smaller problems, he said. “We can’t wait for someone from Louisiana or Florida to drive over and service it.”

But when a larger problem occurred with a piece of piledriving equipment they just couldn’t get to work, APE swapped it out with a brand-new APE D62 single-acting diesel hammer, Bell said.

As of late September, American Bridge had 45 workers on the container terminal project, Bell said. But he anticipated they’ll build up to between 75 and 80 workers.

P&H had approximately 15 workers on the project, he said.

Not to Barge In …

Because of the nature of the construction, there’s no land to work on and barges are a fundamental part of it, Bell explained.

“Everything’s out on the water. Everything’s done by barge,” he said.

There’s 47,600 linear ft. (14,500 m) of concrete piling to be driven in phase 1, 1,678 wall ft. (511 m) of PA 50/18 combination (Pipe-Z) wall and 235 wall ft. (71.6 m) of AZ48 sheetpile wall, Bell said. The Pipe-Z wall is on the outside of the bulkhead structure, and the sheet pile wall is where it turns to come back and tie into the shore line.

Between the caps and deck, they’ll be using 15,000 cu. yds. (11,500 cu m) of concrete, he said.

The Pipe-Z wall will be a very rigid structure, made up of 50-in. pipe pile approximately 85 ft. (26 m) long with sheetpile bent in a Z-shape locked onto it, Bell said. Because of the shape of the shoreline, the north end of the wall will be approximately 300 ft. (91 m) offshore while the south end will be approximately 700 ft. (213 m) offshore.

Batter piles (24-in. concrete) are leaned 41 degrees onto the Pipe-Z wall to counter the pressure on the wall from the fill, he said.

The structure becomes a retaining wall so fill can be put in where water currently is and make land out of it, Bell said.

Phillips and Jordan will put in the fill. Consequently, the project is driven by four milestones or different sections of the main bulkhead wall that need to be finished by certain deadlines so Phillips and Jordan can do its work there on time.

Old Timber Discovered

In addition to hurricane-related challenges, American Bridge ran into another unexpected obstacle on the job — old timber piling below the mudline.

“We’ve encountered a lot of old timber docks from God-knows-when,” Bell said. The waterfront site has been there for so long, the docks were not on any record.

It adds an extra step (or two) to the concrete pile installation. Before a concrete pile is picked up off the barge, the crew first inserts a long jet probe pile with a jet pump in it into the piledriving template, Bell said.

If anything gets in the way, the jet hits it, and they know they need to get something out, he said. The old piling is extracted using a claw bucket and extra jet pump.

American Bridge is using several subcontractors on the job in addition to P&H.

The rebar installation subcontractor is Davis Whaley of Jacksonville, FL.

Marshall A. McCleod Professional Land Surveyors did the initial site survey and control and is assisting when American Bridge’s on-site surveyor gets stretched, he said.

Subcontractor Virginia Wrecking of Stapleton, AL, did all the demolition and removal work at the site, which featured a pier where railroad cars were loaded and unloaded.

Phillips and Jordan has its own $10.8-million contract for site work for stage 1 construction. CEG