Angelle Bergeron
The Biloxi Bay U.S. 90 bridge project replaces a bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Seventy–seven days shy of a deadline to open two lanes to traffic on a replacement bridge for Mississippi's US 90 over Biloxi Bay, the joint venture contractor on the job is way ahead of schedule. The timing is good, because the job is reaching a phase less vulnerable to delay from hurricanes as the 2007 hurricane season begins to turn mean.

With Hurricane Dean spinning into the Caribbean with 125 mph winds, and intensifying, and tropical storm Erin spreading misery across lower Texas, crews are wrapping up the pours for the column footings now. That means the piles would be protected if a storm roared in, and so would the contractor's big lead on the schedule. It has set all 1,219 piles for both spans of the $342–million bridge and is pouring the final two column footings now. The project manager says the job is on track to set a record.

"I don't know of any other bridge built this fast from the date of the notice to proceed," says Steve Underwood, project manager.

Angelle Bergeron
The last of the big footing pours was under way Aug. 16. The 370 yd monolith will support main span columns on the east bound span. Capping the last of the 1,219 piles of the twin-span bridge will help guard them from damage if a hurricane comes in.

The design/build contractor, GC Constructors, is a joint venture of Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Mo., lead partner, with Kiewit Southern Company, Fort Worth, Texas and Traylor Bros., Inc., Evansville, Ind. It received notice to proceed on the bridge to replace one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, from the Mississippi Dept. of Transportation on June 15, 2006. It drove the first permanent pile less than three months later. On August 16 it was 64% of the way to delivering all six lanes of traffic, which aren't due until April 16, 2008.

"It's gonna be kinda hard to build another bridge slower after this," Underwood says. "The owners know that too."

Several factors are speeding the work, including the fact that the participating firms already had a presence–and equipment–on the Hurricane Katrina–ravaged Gulf Coast when MDOT gave the green light.

"We were on the job site before June 16, so when we got the notice to proceed, geo–tech work began immediately," Underwood says. "The owner was extremely cooperative with our getting started and we had very good turnaround time on all the design work." Parsons Transportation Group of Chicago is the engineer. "Everybody from MDOT to contractors was on the job with the same idea, to get it done on time," Underwood says. "I can't think of any job I've been on that has gone the way this has, with the partnering and team work."

The JV was originally scheduled to deliver the two lanes, as well as a land–based overpass bridge for the nearby CSX Railroad, by November 13. "The contractor could see that production rates would allow for an earlier date for the two–lane opening, and offered an alternative–Nov. 1, says Layla Essary, a spokeswoman for MDOT's District Six. "While Nov. 1 is still an aggressive schedule to meet, they felt it was attainable," she says.

The contractor is taking advantage of its fast progress on the westbound span to double–time work on the eastbound one, working four cranes from the westbound decks in addition to 17 cranes on the water. If needed, it has three more available in the yard, Underwood says.

"He's pretty much got an assembly line operation," says Kelly Castleberry, MDOT district area engineer. "He's got the decking crew, finishing crew, reinforcing steel, and grinding work all happening at the same time."

Originally a $338 million contract, the cost increased $4 million due to utility agreements and a few minor project additions, specifically accent lighting, says Kent Dussom, project manager with URS of San Francisco, Calif., which is performing quality control for MDOT. "Overall, the project is within 1% of its original budget," Dussom says.

The fast moving project is shadowed by another rapidly progressing U.S. 90 bridge replacement job over the St. Louis Bay, 25 miles to the east, whose progress stumbled when a column form collapsed during a pour on June 14, killing two workers and injuring seven.

When asked if the GC Contractors made changes in its processes or safety procedures after accident at the other bridge, Underwood says that no changes were necessary. "They've got a completely different method from us. All of our column forms are guided off with cables, which is how Massman has done it for years," he says. "Our process was well engineered to start with, so we didn't have to make any changes."

The contractor has had no incidents that "any construction job is susceptible to," Underwood says. However, he pointed out that the joint venture has been working diligently on its safety culture. "We have meetings every day and joint meetings once a month," he says. "When that occurred at Bay St. Louis, we gathered everybody together and told them our job is different, the methods are different."

In a few days, the 450–member crew will enjoy a huge barbecue to celebrate completion of the last footing pour. And Underwood will rest a little easier, even as Hurricane Dean looms in the Caribbean as a potential threat. "With those footings poured, the piles are protected in the event of a hurricane, if a barge were to blow into it or something," he says. Underwood also says he thinks the season's rising hurricane activity is acting as a wakeup call for his crew. He says many of the 450 workers on site are from out of state. They came to Mississippi for reconstruction in the aftermath of Katrina but have never experienced a hurricane. "You go through a season with nothing," Underwood says. "Then the second one is pretty quiet. And all of a sudden, there's one out there, and it's a reality check for them," he says.

Walking the length of the deck on the westbound span, Underwood says the most exciting job he ever worked on was the Greenville Bridge in northern Mississippi, because it was unique. "It was cable stayed on two floating caissons, which has never been done before–at least not in the United States," he says. "That was the most interesting, but this is the most impressive because of the speed."

Underwood gives all of the credit for the project to the crew, which he lauds as "one of the most highly talented, dedicated groups of people" he's worked with. "These people out here are the ones who make it happen he says," gesturing towards concrete finishers working nearby on the barrier rails. "They feel like they are part owner in the whole thing."

It's obvious that Underwood shares that sense of ownership and pride when he stops a man operating the grooving machine to point out the hydraulic fuel he is leaking that is blemishing the fresh, clean concrete. "When this bridge opens, the only one who won't see everything as perfect is me," Underwood says. "I don't want that running off into the bay, and I don't want everything looking all splotchy when we open."

From a boat on the water, he points out the unique form–stripping operation they created by mounting telescoping posts on a barge and topping it with a steel platform. "It gives them a good, big work area to strip from," Underwood says. "This operation can have 12 people working and they've got plenty of room."

The contractor is scheduled to place the girder on the main span in September. Barring a hurricane, MDOT will conduct a grand opening celebration of the first two lanes on November 1.