By ROBIN FORD WALLACE
“I don’t know yet,” said Rocky Jones. “I haven’t really studied into it that hard.”
Jones, a Wildwood resident, was among the crowd of Dade Countians watching a time-lapse video of accelerated bridge building aired by the Georgia Department of Transportation at its informational public meeting in Hooker last week.
In the clip, which is of I-84 on the New York-Connecticut border, bright yellow bulldozers with long necks and vicious beaks demolish a bridge with quick jerky pecks, like monster birds in some Japanese animated film. Tiny hardhatted humans rush busily in and out of the frame, then a clean new bridge slides smoothly into place.
You can watch it yourself on YouTube. Here’s the link: youtube.com/watch?v=vX-XjeXocNE.
GDOT was airing the I-84 footage at the Dec. 3 meeting to help explain its plan to replace the bridge on Highway 299 over I-24 all in one weekend in 2015.
Engineer Andrew Hoenig, one of several GDOT employees on hand to answer questions at the public meeting, said the 299 bridge would be closed at 9 p.m. on a Friday and reopened at 5 a.m. on the ensuing Monday. “The window is 56 hours,” he said.
Hoenig said that accelerated bridge building was still pretty new, maybe a couple of years old, but that it has already been successfully used all over the country. Besides the I-84 bridge – which was a real quickie, by the way, just 18 hours in construction – Wisconsin, Utah, Nevada and Massachusetts have also installed these “instant bridges.”
“Georgia has not, but we’re looking at doing this as a pilot project,” said Hoenig. “So we’re thinking about doing this more often.”
Acceleration is the wave of the future, said Hoenig, because the shorter time period makes the construction safer, easier and less of a headache to everybody involved. “It’s less impact to the traveling public and less impact for GDOT,” he said.
GDOT plans to award the 299 bridge contract by summer 2014. Then the temporary construction phase will start in the fall, with the bridge ready to plug into place when the old one is demolished on the as-yet unnamed weekend in spring 2015.
In the months preceding this lightning installation, Hoenig said, the bridge will be assembled in a vacant grassy area off the highway ramp. Then it will be moved into place using one of two methods. “There’s a slide-in [technique] and there’s a self-propelled modular transport, which is basically a big tank holding the bridge up on wheels and they move it in,” he said.
The latter method is abbreviated SPMT in the trade. Hoenig said the other method, the slide-in, is the one depicted in the I-84 video.
What kind of craftsman can perform this kind of modern miracle? Hoenig says practically any road contractor will do. “They might have a specialist to come in and do that part of it, where they put it on wheels and roll it into place,” he said. “But a local contractor can come in and do 90 percent of this.”
The bridge itself will be much like the old one, though a tad wider, said Hoenig, made of rebar, steel and concrete. “That part of it is pretty routine,” he said.
Hoenig said throughout the bridge work at least four lanes of traffic would be kept open on the interstate, with the median used for temporary lanes as traffic is routed to one side or the other of the bridge. On the demolition/installation weekend, detours for local traffic will be indicated.
As for why the old bridge has to go, Hoenig says it’s somewhat low on its sufficiency rating but mostly it’s just old. “It’s a 50-year-old bridge and it’s reached its lifespan,” he said.
Attending the meeting in his capacity as county boss, Ted Rumley, who before the 2008 general election was a contractor himself, said he imagined all the larger local road construction firms would bid the bridge job.
“I didn’t think they were going to let anybody who didn’t have a track record bid it,” said Rumley. “But he [Hoenig] said that as long as they could bond it and they’re insured and they’re legitimate, even if it’s the first time they’ve ever built a bridge they’re going to let them bid it.”
Rumley said if the project had come up 10 years ago he’d have bid it himself. “I’m not going to say it’s simple but it’s just like an overgrown puzzle, is what it amounts to,” he said.
All the parts would be assembled ahead of time, he said. “Then when they start, there won’t be any talking, it will be all work,” said Rumley. “Everybody will have their job and they’ll know what they’re doing and how long they’ve got to do it.”
The boss opined that since it was Georgia’s first crack at accelerated bridge-building, many observers would set up cameras and Dade would ultimately have its own time-lapse footage in cyberspace.
The GDOT meeting was well attended by Dade residents but most seemed there to gather rather than impart information. For those who did wish to express concerns or opinions, GDOT had a court reporter standing by to record them verbatim.
Taking advantage of this service was Stacey Varnell, who lives on Sand Mountain. She said that she worried about the traffic at 299 that would result from the bridge work but that she had seized this opportunity to tell GDOT her larger concerns about the 299 exchange. “It is so dark you cannot see which direction you are going,” she said. “East and west are on the same side of the bridge and there’s no lighting, so when it’s raining or it’s foggy, you can’t see.”
She told the story of a 92-year-old visitor to the county who she said died last year because of the visibility problem. “He went the wrong way and he was killed by a semi truck,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, Dade also has multiple fatalities at the I-24/I-59 split because of the bad signage there. “The one on the left says Birmingham. The one on the right says Nashville. Nowhere does it say Huntsville or Memphis,” she said. “So when people get in their mind, oh, I need to go to Huntsville, they think Birmingham because it’s Alabama, they’re in the right-hand lane, they’re going all the way over to the left-hand lane.”
Here was her suggestion to GDOT: “You can keep Birmingham just Birmingham but when it says Nashville, you need to put underneath there Huntsville, Memphis, exit 152.”
And while she was at it, Ms. Varnell expressed displeasure – as have, the Sentinel must add, countless other Dade residents at dozens of other gatherings –that GDOT had closed its local outpost. “Last year when it snowed, if it hadn’t been for our county employees we would probably have been stranded for a week up on the mountain,” she said. “When they say north Georgia they think Dalton, Ringgold, Fort Oglethorpe, and we get left out.”
Rocky Jones, who lives close to the 299 bridge, also commented to the court reporter. Even in normal times, he said, every time the interstate backs up, cars and big trucks get off at Haletown and take the back roads around to reenter at 299. “That’s my biggest thing, am I going to be able to get out if I want to get out with all this traffic?” said Jones.
Jones said he would lay in serious groceries for the bridge-building weekend in case he couldn’t. And as to the feasibility of building the bridge in two days, Jones admitted:
“I don’t believe it. I’ve got to see it.”