Bridging the gap

24 April 2008

Late in 2005 residents of the state of Washington finally got serious about repairing and replacing roads, bridges and viaducts that are structurally failing and would likely crumble in the event of even a small earthquake.

Voters cleared the way for the state legislature to appropriate $2.98 billion for 30 projects termed At Risk Structures around the state, but mainly in the Puget Sound region. Among the projects that fall into the legislation are the replacement of the aging and earthquake vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct, replacement of the SR 520 floating bridge, seismic retrofitting of more than 150 bridges and the replacement of 26 bridges that are deteriorating or are too narrow.

Simply put, the reason state government and citizens finally committed to such a sweeping transportation improvement program was because they finally realized “the longer we wait, the more we risk.” Time and again citizens had rejected raising their own taxes to pay for improvements. Perhaps watching the dreadful images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had something to do with their change of heart, but Washington state has committed to improving its transportation infrastructure in a big way.

“This is the biggest package in the history of the state of Washington,” says Jugesh Kapur, a bridge engineer with Washington Department of Transportation. “The key was that the public finally says yes we need these improvements. It was beginning to affect their quality of life.”

Kapur explains that many of the structures are quite old, most built in the 1950s, before seismic codes were developed. In the 1980s, when it was determined that many of Seattle's structures would be deficient in the event of an earthquake, the Washington DoT turned its attention to strengthening and retrofitting these bridges. But almost 25 years later, many structures are still below par.

“This new program, with $87 million to be appropriated over the next eight years, has given a new push for the seismic retrofit program,” says Kapur. While his department is under pressure to deliver these projects, Kapur says the momentum is exciting.

The most expensive project in the package is the total replacement of the aging and earthquake vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct, the elevated roadway that runs along the Seattle sea wall and through the heart of downtown. “The need to replace the viaduct and sea wall will not go away,” says Kristy Laing, communications officer for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project. “There is a one in 20 chance an earthquake will damage them both beyond repair in the next 10 years. We are closing the funding gap and the state and city are working together to make the project more affordable.” In the design phase, the project is expected to start in 2008.

Last year's hurricanes did a lot to get the US to start examining its failing infrastructure issues. Kapur says he expects other states to follow Washington's lead in identifying critical infrastructure needs and moving them to the “front burner.”

As a result of Hurricane Ivan, a compelling infrastructure project on the fast track is the replacement of the I-10 bridges over Escambia Bay in the Pensacola, FL area. After one side of the existing damaged bridge was repaired last year to allow for limited passage, construction started on two new 2.6 mile bridges, each with three 12 foot lanes and 10 foot inside and outside shoulders. Flatiron Construction and Tidewater Skanska formed a joint venture to build the bridges with a price tag of $242.7 million. The project is slated for completion in 29 months.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project is another infrastructure project that was badly needed in the Bay Area and was ultimately the result of the earthquake that hit San Francisco some 15 years ago. The new self-anchored, single tower suspension span will cross the shipping channel and connect to a skyway. The skyway segments are erected by beam and winch method, delivered by barge from a casting yard in Stockton, CA. The 480 to 780 ton recast segments are erected using a Self Launching Erection Device (SLED).

Another monumental infrastructure repair project underway is the Katy Freeway reconstruction in Houston, TX. This project, involving a 20 mile section of the freeway from the City of Katy to its Intersection with the 610 loop, also involves federal, state and local tax dollars as well as toll road revenues and will bring much needed traffic relief to the nation's fourth largest city.

Extending 40 miles from downtown west to the Brazos River, the original Katy Freeway was completed in 1968, and was designed to carry 79,200 vehicles a day and to have a pavement life of 20 years before major reconstruction would be required. Today, some 30 years later, some 207,000 cars clog the roadway everyday, and it is congested 11 hours a day.

The most revolutionary aspect of the new Katy Freeway is that twelve miles of it will have toll lanes parallel to non-toll lanes. This is the first project of its type in the state.

In Denver, the $1.67 billion Transportation Expansion Project, locally known as T-Rex, has transformed the way people travel in Metro Denver. Bringing 18 miles of light rail to the city and improving 17 miles of highway in the region, the project was a milestone for Colorado and an example for other metro areas seeking to alleviate congestion.


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