Friday, November 16, 2007

Easton bridge repair and working at WSDOT

I never know what to expect when I  come into work each day.  The Easton bridge is a great example of how things can change very quickly at WSDOT and how fun and exciting it can be working here.  

If you didn't already know, an over-height load drove into a bridge over Interstate 90 in Easton recently.  The impact of the truck was like flipping a switch, mobilizing teams throughout WSDOT, including engineers, inspectors, communicators and contractors.

Just another day at the office.

WSDOT crews, dressed in reflective coats and pants, immediately closed the highway. They waved drivers to the off-ramp and set up orange barrels to block the two lanes (as you can see in the start of this video).

The overpass bridge, damaged by the oversized load, had to be closed with concrete barriers and orange cones. Keep in mind this started at 4 am. Bridge engineers were called out to inspect the damage and concluded that all six support girders were irreparably damaged. The bridge deck was no longer safe for vehicles to travel across it or underneath it. WSDOT had to tear down the bridge before traffic could flow freely on eastbound I-90.

Communications staff fired off news items and highway alerts and updated the Web site. Media inquiries followed, and communicators established a schedule to get reporters on scene and provide updates. A communications manager for the local area drove 75 miles to the scene to coordinate interviews.

Coordination happened quickly. It had to so drivers could keep moving. Surprisingly, the length of eastbound backups fluctuated between only one to three miles. Delays were only about eight to 10 minutes. Five TV reporters plus camera operators came to the scene in satellite trucks to do live interviews. Newspaper and radio reporters called in for updates. The Washington State Patrol trooper who fined the semi truck driver who struck the bridge returned to give statements.

Construction engineers found contractors who could do the work right away. Overnight, Rhine’s giant concrete cracker, which looks just like a giant nutcracker, worked carefully alongside the concrete hydraulic ram to chew apart the eastbound half of the bridge without damaging the rest of the bridge structure. Bridge engineers and inspectors were on site throughout the night as the girders were removed. Most of the engineers and inspectors put in a 20-hour day.

By 3:45 a.m. – less than 24 hours after the oversize load hit the bridge – the bridge was down, the mess swept up, the orange cones removed, and traffic was back on eastbound I-90 at Easton. We have some great before-and-after photos of what this looked like.

Coordination didn’t just happen in-house. The community needed to know what was going on, too. Maintenance supervisors went door to door to notify the community about what happened, what we were doing about it, and what local folks needed to do to access the highway.

The day following the initial bridge damage, WSDOT bridge engineers immediately began designing the bridge replacement girders. A public open house was planned for Nov. 15 at Easton Community School, outlining WSDOT's next steps in getting the bridge repaired and re-opened to traffic.

There was talk about waiting until spring to repair the bridge, but Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond encouraged construction and bridge engineers to get it fixed before Christmas so that the community of Easton could have access to the highway system as soon as possible.

Construction of the “Bulb-T” girders is currently under way in Tacoma at one of the closest manufacturing facilities for pre-stressed girders. Once the girders are built and the concrete cured, the company will ship them directly to the project site.

What is out of our control however, is the weather. We are still hoping for mild weather for the first couple of weeks of December to get the girders up there and get that bridge back open. The girders on a truck will be an oversize load and keep in mind that oversize loads can't travel if there are traction advisories, so the shipment  is weather dependent.

And this level of coordination doesn't stop. The Web site gets continual updates, the news releases continue to go out with the latest updates, the engineering work has to continue to get the bridge back open to the local community.

As you can see, coordination and cooperation happened from all angles across the state, involving communications, engineers and upper management. That level of teamwork and fast action is part of the deal here, and it’s what makes WSDOT a fascinating place to work.