Bridge Reconstruction Project Triumphs Over Time Constraints
1-40 Bridge Reconstruction
| May 26:
Barges crash into the I-40 bridge near Webbers Falls, OK.
| June 1:
Webbers Falls, OK, sets up a memorial in a city park near the river.
| June 3:
OK Transportation Commission approves a contract for demolition.
| June 4:
Demolition staging area already holds 2,000 tons of deposited debris.
| June 8:
On-site, pre-bid rebuilding meeting held.
| June 11:
Barges are moved from crash site, right.
| June 12:
Waterway traffic resumes. OK Transportation Commission awards reconstruction contract. Clock on incentive deadline starts running at 6 p.m.
| June 26:
Victims are remembered at a onemonth anniversary ceremony.
| July 17:
Traffic counts show nearly 20,000 vehicles, including local traffic, use detours. User costs total about $22 million in gas, wear, time lost to motorists, etc.
| July 26:
Final paving is poured on the bridge deck.
| July 29:
Just 65 days after the barge accident, the I-40 bridge reopens to traffic.
With a population of 722, Webbers Falls, OK, was once little more than a dot on the map to area highway motorists speeding past on their way to points east and west. Now, the tiny town is a stopping point for some, a place for travelers to reflect on the Memorial Day weekend tragedy that took place there on May 26, 2002.
Two barges, heading north through the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System early that Sunday morning, veered from the river’s navigational channel and collided with the Interstate 40 bridge that crosses the waterway near Webbers Falls. To witnesses, the crash looked deceptively slow, but the barges hit with such an impact that a third of the heavily traveled bridge collapsed, sending 10 cars into the water 60 feet below. Fourteen people died.
Not only did the accident result in the loss of life, it devastated one of the most vital east-west transportational links in the United States. With an estimated total user cost of $430,000 per day for each day the bridge remained closed, there was no time to waste in getting the bridge back in operation.
As the initial action agency on the scene, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol coordinated rescue and recovery efforts until the last body and vehicle were retrieved from the river. Control of the site was then transferred to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) on May 30, just five days after the accident.
Tim Gatz, Division Manager with ODOT’s Project Management Division, estimates that hundreds of ODOT workers were impacted by the accident.
“You don’t have to consider just the people that were working out there,” Gatz says, “but also the people that their absence impacted who stepped up behind them and took care of business. You could say it rippled through the whole agency in some form or fashion.”
The Project Management Division was heavily involved in procuring the engineering services associated with the bridge reconstruction project. Fortunately, in the two years prior to the accident, the Division’s Contract Administration group had already been streamlining its professional services contracting process, cutting it from six months to two. This came in handy in the wake of the barge crash.
By outsourcing the bridge design, the Project Management Division cut even more time off the process. Gatz, together with others in ODOT, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officials, and Greg Allen, Assistant Bridge Engineer with ODOT’s Bridge Division, set up interviews with three consulting firms right after the accident.
“We went through the interviews and selection process in only two days,” Allen says. “We looked at how fast they could put together biddable construction plans and innovative design ideas, along with their expertise, resources, and availability.”
A cost plus contract—with an hourly rate rather than a lump sum—was signed with Poe and Associates that afternoon. The work order was ready just three days after the accident.
This was the first time that shop drawings were included in the engineering contract. The plans were reviewed and passed back to consultants electronically rather than by mail, shaving several more days off the process.
At the time of the crash, crews with Jensen Construction were working on another bridge project on nearby US-59. They moved their crane and barge equipment upstream when ODOT called on them to help with recovery and demolition operations at the I-40 site.
In the meantime, the design contractors returned completed plans after 12 days, 4 days ahead of their bid. That’s where ODOT’s Office of Engineering Division came in.
“We take it from the point that the final design is submitted,” says Jack Stewart, Division Engineer, ODOT Office Engineer Division. “We handle the pre-bid conference. We put the contracts together and get all the bonding requirements taken care of.”
On June 8, just two weeks after the accident, ODOT held an on-site, pre-bid meeting which all interested bidders were required to attend—not a typical practice.
“Having a mandatory pre-bid meeting on site was an absolute necessity,” Allen says. “We had the design plans, and the contractors needed to see what we were dealing with.”
ODOT allowed a maximum bid of 72 days (1,728 hours). To encourage bidders to complete the project as soon as possible, ODOT relied on a modified design-build approach, offering a contract incentive of $6,000 per hour for early completion. Conversely, contractors would receive $6,000 less for every hour the project fell behind schedule.
Bids for the reconstruction were opened on June 12 at 11 a.m. A special session of the Oklahoma Transportation Commission met that day and awarded the primary rebuilding contract—$10.9 million and 57 days (1,368 hours)—to Fort Worth, TXbased Gilbert Central Corp. by 2 p.m.
The company had just two hours to return the executed contract, a process that usually takes 10 days, followed by several weeks of ODOT review. By 6 p.m., the clock started ticking toward the reconstruction project deadline. What normally took up to two months was completed in a single day!
The fact that then-governor Frank Keating declared the bridge collapse a state emergency went far in speeding rebuilding efforts. The designation allowed ODOT officials to avoid a lot of red tape.
“[Gilbert Central was] having to mobilize from all over the country,” Stewart says. “I remember one particular call I had on a Friday at about 10 minutes til 12. [The contractor] said, ‘I can’t get Iowa to give me one of those heavy load limit deals.’ I made one or two calls. One of them was to the director. I don’t know who he called—probably Washington, I imagine.
“Within 30 minutes, they had [the contractor] issued clean and green all the way through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and into Oklahoma,” Stewart says. “Everything was normal except the time frame was just so compressed.”
Given the green light to cross state lines, contractors were able to transport and set up heavy equipment, including several cranes with capacities from 80 to 300 tons, in just two days.
“When they were mobilizing, [the contractors] probably had a parking lot of equipment that was a half mile long at least,” Stewart says.
A special, temporary Webbers Falls Residency was set up to allow immediate communication between contractors and ODOT engineers.
“The temporary residency was staffed with three retired ODOT folks who worked for consultants,” says George Raymond, State Construction Engineer with the ODOT Construction Division. “We hired them to manage the residency operations, and we staffed the residency with 10 permanent ODOT construction folks temporarily for the effort.
“Normally there might be one or two people assigned to a project,” Raymond says. “It’s not uncommon today with our reduced staff and reduced resources—we might have one inspector that’s assigned to a couple of projects. This was definitely a special circumstance for us.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of work, potentially 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Raymond says. “We knew that speed was of the essence. We didn’t want to have the potential for sacrificing any quality, so we wanted to make sure that we had someone on our side to stand there at all times watching the operations to ensure that we had a good, quality project whenever we got it completed. That’s why we sent so many people there to watch over this effort.”
Having resident engineers on site 24 hours a day helped to eliminate any time delays in answering contractors’ questions along the way.
“[Normally] if a problem were discovered late on a Friday, it’d be Monday before anybody might actually start investigating and trying to solve it,” Raymond says. “That wasn’t the case on this particular project. We had people available around the clock if something needed to be answered.
“That gave me the most pride,” Raymond says, “being able to play an integral part of that temporary residency, to gather up a staff that was willing to step forward and relocate for a couple of months.”
A portable building set up at the site served as the residency command post during the reconstruction efforts. From there, ODOT engineers could transfer data from the job site back to headquarters in Oklahoma City via a borrowed fiber optic line running along the south side of the Interstate. The line had been live but not yet in use.
A New Mexico company was hired to trench the fiber optic line from the bridge to the portable building. Also, Cookson Hills Electric Coop ran power to the site and telephone lines were installed. These communications connections were all made in three hours. The addition of faxes, printers, and copiers helped to create a complete, on-site office.
ODOT knew early on that communication with the public would be vital, as well. Calls from across the country and as far away as Japan poured into ODOT offices immediately following the accident.
To update the general public, ODOT daily posted pictures of the bridge’s progress to the ODOT Web site. One of three full-time ODOT photographers was on site at least 18 hours a day to capture key events. The team took 9,000 pictures from the day of the accident to the opening of the repaired bridge.
The Web site also included advisories for motorists traveling on detour routes. ODOT’s Public Affairs Division would later be recognized by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) for its public information efforts.
While contractors worked to repair the I-40 bridge, ODOT crews were charged with daily maintaining the 57-mile-long eastbound and 6-mile-long westbound detours. About 20,000 vehicles, including 7,000 trucks, used the detours every day.
Area two-lane roads were subjected to heavy traffic as a result of the I-40 detour. Of particular concern was the staggering increase in truck traffic on small town roads— an estimated 187 to 665 percent.
To keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible, ODOT installed traffic control devices, repaired roadway shoulders, and treated surfaces and bridge decks. Signs for the detour route were given top priority. In addition, ODOT’s Planning Division provided automatic and manual traffic counters to identify changes in traffic patterns.
Help on the detours came from many directions. The Turnpike Authority provided message boards at turnpike access points. The towns of Gore and Webbers Falls offered 24-hour manual flagging. Crews from neighboring Muskogee, Haskell, and Sequoyah Counties added roundthe-clock detour traffic monitoring.
Committing to Completion
In several visits to the bridge site over the course of the reconstruction period, Raymond was impressed by the commitment of those involved.
“There was a sense of urgency,” Raymond says, “a very high level of commitment on the part of ODOT’s personnel, the consultants, contractor personnel, FHWA—everybody had a goal in mind.”
As many as 120 Gilbert Central people and crews from 19 subcontractors worked around the clock. With the help of innovative tools, the contractors were able to speed their work. One such tool, a concrete maturity meter from Nomadics, Inc., helped measure the strength of in situ concrete. This was the first large-scale project in which such a meter was used.
“The maturity meter and concrete mix kept the curing process going quite well,” Allen says. “We were able to strip some forms in as little as 12 hours.”
In addition, the national Steel Bridge Alliance put their normal operations on hold to make steel plates for span four’s plate girders. Precast concrete was used wherever possible, saving still more time.
“The private and public sectors came together during this crisis to restore normalcy to the state,” says John Fuller, ODOT’s Assistant Director of Operations. “During this emergency, we came together to challenge the wall of red tape and were able to make rapid progress.”
In fact, the bridge was opened to traffic a full 10 days ahead of Gilbert Central’s already ambitious schedule, earning the company more than $1.5 million in bonus incentives. At $144,000 a day, the early completion incentive is just one third the estimated $400,000 to $430,000 in additional road user costs that ODOT estimates taxpayers incurred each day the bridge remained closed.
The total cost for the I-40 bridge reconstruction project reached approximately $24 million. Of that, about $15 million was spent on demolition, cleanup, and repairing the bridge itself.
Another $12 million was spent on asphalt resurfacing, upgrades , and maintenance on the detour routes. This cost also covered adding safety improvements to railroad crossings, including crossing gates, signs, rumble strips, and striping. An average of 18 trains cross the detour highways each day.
Reopening the I-40 bridge so soon after the barge accident required long hours and hard work from everyone involved. Ultimately, though, what may have helped most to speed the project along was ODOT’s existing contingency plan.
“One of the things we talked about is preparedness planning,” Stewart says.“ You need to run through some scenarios like this to be certain that no matter what the emergency is, you’re prepared to respond to it. That’s really, really important. I think we’ve done a lot of that. I think everybody’s done a lot of that since 9/11.”
To others faced with potential emergency situations, Raymond recommends thinking “outside the box.”
“Don’t be afraid of setting goals beyond traditional time frames,” Raymond says. “[ODOT] opened a bid at 9 a.m., awarded it that afternoon, and time started ticking at 6 p.m. Don’t be afraid to set expectations high.
“Our director made some opening remarks at a region-wide conference that we had here in Oklahoma,” Raymond says. “The message he had was ‘Never underestimate the power of your people.’
“That’s something I think we all discovered on this deal,” Raymond says. “If everybody is going to concentrate on a goal, and everybody’s moving toward that goal, you could accomplish almost anything.” Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) contributed to this article.
Recipe for Rapid Roadway Reconstruction
Materials used in the reconstruction project included:
Helping Hands Hasten Highway Reopening