Buffeted by hurricanes, northwest Florida’s largest-ever infrastructure effort is finally seeing the light at the end of the storm. The three-mile-long bridge across Pensacola Bay is expected to reopen to traffic this spring after an ongoing replacement effort abruptly became an emergency repair job as well.
On Sept. 15, 2020, with Hurricane Sally’s approach to the Gulf Coast bringing gusts in excess of 39 mph, the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT) took the routine precaution of closing the bridge across Pensacola Bay to traffic. Nobody knew that it would be at least six months before the crossing would reopen.
A last-minute eastward shift in Sally’s track brought the storm’s eye to within 30 miles of the bridge and its partially complete parallel structure, being built by Skanska USA Southeast. At some point during the storm, wind-driven waves freed 27 construction barges from their moorings, scattering them into the churning bay. An unknown number of vessels struck the existing bridge at multiple locations, completely severing some spans and leaving deep gashes in others.
It would be several days before inspections revealed the full extent of damage. FDOT’s drone surveys and other preliminary images left little doubt that a challenging restoration effort lay ahead. FDOT and contractor representatives did not make themselves available for interviews, but the agency has shared many aspects of how the recovery and repair effort has unfolded via press releases, video updates and its public information website.
Opened in 2019, the damaged bridge was the first project completed as part of FDOT’s $430-million program to replace a now decommissioned 1960s-era bridge between downtown Pensacola and the suburb of Gulf Breeze with twin three-lane structures. The project, which also included a new interchange in downtown Pensacola and improvements to Gulf Breeze approach roads, aimed to expand capacity for commuter traffic, which had reached 55,000 vehicles a day, and upgrade a key hurricane evacuation route.
The design-build project began in 2016 with Skanska, lead designer WSP and Eisman & Russo Inc. Each 65-ft-high steel-reinforced precast bridge sports a 375-ft-long, 83-ft-high steel-plate arch supporting a 10-ft-wide multiuse path. Prior to Sally, the parallel bridge was on track for completion in late 2021.
But in the aftermath of Sally, what had been a largely uneventful construction process spiraled into uncertainty. As the storm left the area, FDOT and the team mobilized inspectors to assess the condition of both bridges, while eight dive teams evaluated underwater footings and potential debris damage.
At the outset of the inspections, Eisman & Russo senior project manager Glenn Peterson said in an FDOT-produced video that while the surviving bridge spans appeared in good shape, the team had to carefully scrutinize the structural load carrying capacity of individual components.
“The beams are the easiest to see, and they were really badly affected in several areas,” Peterson said. “When we can see the load-carrying steel member has been damaged, we have to consider how badly it’s damaged. When we see it’s exceeded a certain point where it can’t be repaired, we have to replace it.”
Damage assessments revealed that 70 155-ft-long beams required replacement, along with 14 of the 250,000-lb trophy pieces and eight 150-ft by 59-ft spans. Another 14 spans required partial replacement, while 12 spans of the multiuse path had to be rebuilt.
Despite criticism of its pre-hurricane preparations, Skanska continued to serve as lead contractor. FDOT set a goal of having the bridge fully repaired and open to traffic by March. Skanska augmented its resources with two more contractors and four salvage companies.
According to a Skanska statement, the repair workforce grew to nearly 400 craft and staff workers handling demolition and reconstruction, salvage and pile operations and concrete fabrication. Equipment resources were bolstered as well, including the addition of five barge-mounted cranes to replace equipment damaged or lost during Hurricane Sally.
Other existing bridge construction assets for the parallel bridge would likewise benefit the repair effort. A precast yard established in nearby Bayou Chico stepped up fabrication of trophy pieces and beams, with additional piles supplied by a separate precast facility in Tampa.
Before repair work could get underway, contractors had to conduct an extensive waterborne demolition effort to remove damaged sections as well as subsurface concrete and steel debris. There was also the matter of removing four wayward barges lodged beneath the structure without causing additional structural issues. Contractors applied a variety of methods to remove damaged components as quickly and safely as possible. According to FDOT’s website, one method involved the use of a specialty barge equipped with self-propelled mobile transports (SMPTs) positioned beneath a damaged span.
After crews saw-cut the span lengthwise over the centerline of the piers, the SPMTs lifted and moved each section to the other side of the barge for transfer to a second barge. The sections were then transported to shoreside areas for demolition and unloading. Larger pieces of debris were delivered to an artificial reef site.
The bustle of activity was interrupted in late October as Hurricane Zeta made its way toward the Louisiana Coast. With barges and equipment relocated and moored in secure locations away from the bridge to ride out the storm, Zeta passed without causing further damage, allowing repair work to quickly resume, albeit with damage assessments still in progress.
Eisman & Russo program director Brett Pielstick reported in an FDOT-produced video that some areas that were unsafe weren’t cleared for reconstruction until mid-November. “Dive boats are everywhere to help us complete our assessment so we know exactly the scope we have to do,” Pielstick said, adding that Skanska also resumed construction on the parallel bridge and landside portions of the project. FDOT has not said whether the repair effort has affected that project’s level of activity or completion schedule.
By December, pile-driving for new spans was underway in earnest. According to FDOT, the process was synchronized with removal of damaged trophy pieces and waterline footings, followed by saw-cutting the four-pile clusters at the mudline. A 20,000-lb diesel-powered hammer drove new piles in clusters of six to avoid conflict with remnants of the old piles, followed by installation of a new footing and trophy piece.
December also brought another unwanted sense of déjà vu, with FDOT reporting that a Skanska-owned barge had broken loose and become stuck against private docks near the bridge. Along with reviewing its mooring practices, the company launched an investigation with state and local authorities to determine if the line connecting the barge to the sea floor had been severed intentionally. Results of the investigation have not been made public.
Focused on Finishing
The project team achieved another repair milestone in mid-January, with FDOT announcing the start of concrete pours for the first new bridge deck. The agency also reported that casting of all new piles and beams was complete, with installation projected to be complete by the end of February. According to FDOT’s remaining schedule, beam erection, deck pours and nonstructural repairs on the bridge are scheduled to be completed in March. The final steps to reopening—barrier wall, striping and electrical work—are due to be completed by month’s end.
Though it seems likely that FDOT will complete restoration work on time, many questions remain about the incident itself, including responsibility for a final cost that has yet to be determined. From the outset, FDOT has publicly asserted that “once the situation is fully assessed, and damages are fully understood, appropriate parties will be held responsible for the repairs.” For its part, Skanska has said little beyond initial public statements that it had done all it could to secure its construction barges prior to the change in Sally’s storm track.
“The sudden shift in the intensity, direction, and duration of the storm was unprecedented and entirely unexpected by the entire Pensacola community,” a company statement said. “Unfortunately, it was neither safe nor feasible to attempt the removal of barges and other equipment in the brief period between the storm’s sudden intensification and its ultimate landfall.”
Whatever public plaudits Skanska may receive from its contribution to restore the bridge will likely be overshadowed by the dozens of lawsuits from local businesses and property owners claiming economic losses as a result of the bridge closure. The company is awaiting a federal court to rule on its assertion that maritime law applies to the incident, thereby limiting liability to each barge’s approximate value, which range in legal filings from $125,000 to $550,000.
For now, the project team is focused on fulfilling a commitment Peterson expressed at the outset—having the Pensacola Bay Bridge restored with the full design life of 75 years, “so we have the full service and not a diminished service level.”