Angelle Bergeron
Crew places a finger joint between the decks of the westbound span.

In spite of losing five weeks in the schedule due to a fatal accident in June, joint venture contractors Granite Construction Inc., Watsonville, Calif., and Atlanta–based Archer Western Contractors say they will deliver the $266.8–million U.S. Hwy. 90 Bridge over St. Louis Bay along Mississippi's Gulf Coast before November 30, the originally scheduled date of completion.

Other than citing the five-week delay in the schedule, GAW project manager Allan Nelson wouldn't comment on the June 14 accident that resulted in the deaths of Alger Pennaman, 51, of Jackson, Miss., and Delfino Beltran, 40, of Austin, Texas. A column form failed during a concrete pour, tossing nine workers into the bay and drowning Penman. No official comment has been released from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has six months to perform an investigation. "It is an open investigation, which probably began on June 14 (the date of the accident) or the next day," says Dan Fuqua, public affairs director for OSHA's Atlanta office. "I can't tell you anything until that report is released."

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While both spans will be open by the original deadline, the contractor will be shifting traffic until January 5 to install aesthetic lighting in the center of the bridge and complete grinding and grooving on the decks. The Mississippi Dept. of Transportation recently issued an aesthetic lighting contract worth approximately $8 million, says Steve Twedt, MDOT district engineer of construction. Roadway lighting was included in the original contract, but aesthetic lighting was not, Twedt says.

Initially, negotiations between the MDOT, the local communities and the Federal Highway Administration dictated that both U.S. Hwy. 90 bridges in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis would be equal in aesthetics, says Wayne Brown, MDOT commissioner– Southern District. However, the Bay St. Louis Bridge, which was paced about six months ahead of the Biloxi Bridge, was already under construction before the lighting details were complete, Brown says. "We recently negotiated with the contractor to add this same decorative or aesthetic lighting that would outline the St. Louis Bay Bridge, at a cost of a little less than $8 million, and extended the project completion date some month and a half," Brown says. The lighting contract is from November 30 to January 5, 2008.

Angelle Bergeron
Workers complete slipforming on the bridges center barrier.

The bridge was "overbuilt" to support future average daily traffic capacity, so the lane shifts will have little impact on the traveling public, Nelson says. "They get 10,000–12,000 cars a day and the two lanes can handle it with ease."

By October 15, GAW had delivered 100% of the footings, columns, hammer heads and girders for the two–mile long bridge. "We're pouring the final decks and will be finished by the end of October," Nelson says. Ringer cranes are being dismounted in preparation to be shipped out to projects elsewhere. Where as many as 19 cranes once reached toward the skies, fewer than 10 remain. What was formerly a seven–day crew of 330 to 340 has dwindled to about 190, working a more relaxed schedule. By Christmas, the sprawling, nearby trailer park established by the contractor to support the work force will be dismantled.

The persistence of life and progress was evident on a beautiful fall day. As an observer and the project manager walked the bridge, the sun kissed the water like a million, dancing diamonds. Workers smiled and said hello to Nelson, who addressed most of them by name and chatted familiarly. Everyone seemed energetic and productive, a usual by–product of the first blessed days of fall in the deep south.

Cars whizzed by on the two lanes that were opened to traffic amid great fanfare May 17, when Larry "Butch" Brown, MDOT's executive director, heralded the bridge the fastest delivered in history. Passing motorists chatted on cell phones, apparently concentrating on the day's tasks before them. Most seemed oblivious that they were traveling over infrastructure that had been replaced with amazing swiftness. When the final touches are complete and the last workers have moved on to other projects, there will be no fanfare like last spring's ceremony. MDOT is heavily involved in preparations for the November 1 opening of the $338–million Biloxi Bay Bridge by joint venture contractor GC Constructors. Residents continue to be distracted with untangling the never–ending mounds of insurance red tape and rebuilding their lives. Most media is involved in the latest story.

A trio of men from Landmark Contracting, Inc. of Gulfport, the subcontractor slipforming the center barrier rail, take time to mug for photos and talk about the project. "Other than the fast pace, this is the most beautiful project I have ever worked on," says one of the three. "It's just beautiful being on the water." After–hours and weekend fishing stories are abundant on the job site.

Amid it all, a bridge is brought to life. Precious life continues in spite of hurricanes, in spite of accidents, in spite of death.