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Span of Attention; Cost, overruns, design controversy have overshadowed the creation of 280,000 jobs by Bay Area bridge work

November 28, 2004 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Alec Rosenberg

THE EVENING COMMUTE was just under way at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. A section collapsed. A driver on the bridge was one of 63 people killed in the quake.

The bridge was closed for a month, causing millions of dollars a day in economic losses, not to mention millions of headaches for commuters faced with finding alternative routes.

Loma Prieta was a warning. The deadly 1994 Northridge quake was a second wake-up call. California had to protect its most vital roadways against the next Big One. The stage was set for billions of dollars of work to make the Bay Area's toll bridges seismically safe.

Seven decades ago, the building of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge lifted the economy during the Great Depression. Today, a new Bridge is a massive project. To put it in perspective, $5 billion could build the equivalent of 13 University of California, Merced campuses, 25 200-bed hospitals or 50 20-story skyscrapers such as 555 City Center in Oakland.

"The whole thing combined is the single largest bridge contract ever let in the U.S.," said Cliff Freyermuth, American Segmental Bridge Institute manager. "Depending on what is done with the signature part, it's going to be a landmark project. It will have huge economic implications in the Bay Area."

Assemblyman John Dutra, D-Fremont, estimates that $4 billion of Bay Area bridge work remains, most of it on the Bay Bridge. The impact is especially important given the recent recession, he said. "It's huge," said Dutra, who authored the 2001 bridge-funding legislation. "It's (another) 70,000 to 80,000 jobs in the state of California, based on the California Alliance for Jobs estimate."

Every $1 billion spent on transportation creates 28,000 direct and indirect jobs by state estimates, or 18,000 to 20,000 jobs by alliance estimates.

The alliance, which represents construction companies and union workers, has produced www.newbaybridge.org, a Web site dedicated to telling the story of the new Bay Bridge.

"They're good jobs," alliance spokesman Dennis Oliver said. "Union people are getting paid real wages. These aren't Starbucks jobs."

Indeed, skilled bridge workers earn $25 to $35 an hour.

"Construction is the No. 1 goods-producing industry in the state -- really what's kept the economy alive with the dot-coms going away," Oliver said.

Just planning the skyway took 90 employees a year. The work is symbolized by the 14 red tower cranes lined in the Bay. The $1 million-plus machines were made in France by Potain and erected by Bigge Crane & Rigging of San Leandro.

Bigge, a third-generation business that provided rigging and transportation services during construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, assembled the tower cranes at the Oakland staging area, then erected them at the bridge with a five-person crew.

The project helped Bigge get a contract to erect tower cranes on the Benicia Bridge, Vice President Joe Nelms said.

"(The Bay Bridge) gives us extremely high visibility," Nelms said. "It's a great success story to be able to erect those cranes and not have a single incident. We completed the project on time and didn't have any accidents."

Each tower crane is about 220 feet high, 160 feet across and can lift 44 tons, the equivalent of three city buses.

"The job is about big pieces," tower crane operator Boyd McBride said. "You know you're doing something special. Like (an) old-timer told us, 'we're making history.'"

McBride, a 20-year union member who began as a signalman, is used to building high rises in San Francisco, where a big lift is 9 tons. On the Bay Bridge, he lifts rebar cages that are three times heavier. He relies on his signalman below for guidance in conditions that can be foggy, rainy or windy.

A San Francisco resident, McBride arrives in Oakland by 5:15 a.m., takes a boat ride to the pier and climbs up 150 rungs to the crane's cab. Then he preps the crane, releases the brakes and gets to work.

Operators earn about $35 an hour, plus overtime. A typical shift is five or six days a week, 10 hours a day. One of the few local African-American crane operators, McBride said he has a dream job and hopes to work on the new Bay Bridge's tower section.

"Some guys just don't like the height. They don't like being up that high in the air lifting large weights," McBride said. "It doesn't bother me a bit. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Work on the skyway portion of the new eastern span is 60 percent done and scheduled to finish Nov. 29, 2006. Work continues at a rate of about $1 million a day. It's a complex project with deep foundations, large pier columns and giant precast roadway segments.

Before the bridge foundations can be built, crews must create a safe working environment in the water. For most skyway footings that means constructing a cofferdam or "cell," which is a steel box in the Bay.

"Once you pump the water out, it's basically a cell," said Jim Gunning, operator of the derrick barge Vancouver, a floating crane.

Gunning and his seven-person crew can build an 88-sheet cell in nine days.

Inside the cells are placed 1,000-ton steel footing boxes, which form the base of the skyway's foundation piers.

Before a footing box is placed in a cell, mud is scooped out and the area is filled with 5 feet of gravel. San Francisco firm Ben C. Gerwick designed a screeding beam to level the gravel in one day to within a 1-inch tolerance.

In all, Gerwick has done $1.5 million of work on the new Bay Bridge. Over eight years, the firm has done $15 million of Bay Area bridge work, about one-third of its revenue, President Bob Bittner said.

The Bay Area lost more than 400,000 jobs from 2001 through 2003 -- half of them in Silicon Valley. Bridge work has helped fill the gap.

"Whenever you're investing that level of money in hard infrastructure projects, you're going to see a lot of jobs and well-paying jobs, as well," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's regional transportation planning agency.

It has been decades since the Bay Area has had so many jobs for skilled construction trades workers, he said.

"That construction is a major deal in an economy that is still struggling," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy.

Big transportation projects tend to use union labor because that's an area where the large union contractors are dominant, said Kevin Dayton, spokesman for the Golden Gate chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

With all of the Bay Area bridge construction, "it's kept a lot of our members busy," said Ken Oku, a spokesman for Operating Engineers Local 3, which has 75 members working on the skyway project. "It's been very good for us."

Local 3 member Tim Lassiter operates the DB General, nicknamed "The General," the largest floating crane on the West Coast, which can lift up to 700 tons.

The General drives steel pipe piles, using German-made Menck hydraulic hammers. Bubble curtains are used to blow air into the water to protect fish and seals. Piles can only be driven between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. because of the noise. "When you're around, you have to have ear plugs and earmuffs -- it's deafening," Lassiter said.

Much of the existing eastern span is supported by 70-foot-long Douglas fir piles, which go into Bay mud. The piles on the new Bay Bridge are so long they are welded together and driven 300 feet deep to bedrock at an angle to strengthen the foundations. Think of your legs as piles and stand with them more than shoulder-width apart instead of right next to each other.

Lassiter, 50, a 28-year industry veteran with a skilled touch, takes one to two hours to drive each pile.

"You're working within inches at times," Lassiter said. "You've got to be right on the mark. You've got to be alert and be precise."

California's construction industry was the state's fastest growing sector from 1992 to 2002, adding 300,000 jobs. Much of the growth was in residential and commercial construction, but bridge construction also posted gains.

"If you look at the numbers, overall construction has been pretty consistent -- one of the constants we have had after the economic bubble," said Bruce Kern, executive director of the East Bay's Economic Development Alliance for Business.

This round of Bay Area bridge work began in 1997 with the retrofit of the San Mateo Bridge. It will continue into the next decade, depending on what is done with the eastern span's signature tower section.

The new Bay Bridge needs to be completed, said Michael Cunningham, vice president of the employer-sponsored Bay Area Council.

"It's the single-most important link in the Bay Area transportation system," he said. "If it's knocked out in an earthquake, it would be devastating to the economy."

Of course, finishing the Bay Bridge's new eastern span also is a safety issue.

"We saw the economic impact when a section of it fell down in the Loma Prieta earthquake," said Dennis Fay, executive director of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency. "We can't afford to have it happen again."

The benefits of Bay Area bridge work are being felt across California, from an array of contractors, consultants and suppliers to workers who buy cars, houses and other goods and services in the region.

The contract just to supply the piles for the skyway foundation involved more than 200 workers. The $57 million job was done by Ameron International Corp. of Pasadena and XKT Engineering of Vallejo.

"We had done some work on the San Mateo Bridge, but it wasn't of the magnitude of this," said Bill Sloane, vice president of Ameron's Water Transmission Group.

Ameron had 150 employees producing Bay Bridge pilings at its Fontana plant -- one of the few facilities in the West that could make such big steel piles. The pieces then were shipped on dedicated Union Pacific rail cars to XKT.

XKT, which fabricated roof trusses at San Francisco Airport's International Terminal and has worked on several Bay Area bridge retrofits, had about half of its 110 employees on the Bay Bridge project.

"The Bay Bridge is a once-in-a-lifetime project," XKT founder Al Bottini said. "We did all of the piling on the Martinez Bridge -- you're talking 28 piles. This is 160."

Two key local skyway subcontractors are rebar firms Harris Salinas Rebar of Livermore and Bay Area Reinforcing of Napa.

Reinforcing steel bars, or rebar, which are made from recycled scrap steel such as old appliances and junked cars, are put inside the piles and pier columns.

Harris Salinas Rebar and Bay Area Reinforcing are providing 30,000 tons of rebar for the skyway foundations. It's a $45 million job over four years involving some 90 ironworkers.

The Bay Bridge project is Harris Salinas' largest U.S. contract and the second-largest ever for 9-year-old Bay Area Reinforcing, which did $18 million of work on the Benicia and Carquinez bridges and worked on the BART expansion to SFO.

"This is a little bit smaller than that, but it's the most challenging, one of a kind," said Joe Alamillo, a 43-year industry veteran who co-owns Bay Area Reinforcing with son Larry.

Bay Area Reinforcing has 45 of its 250 employees working on the Bay Bridge project. In Napa, workers assemble 40-ton rebar columns. The columns are so big that special hauling permits are needed to truck them to Oakland.

Harris Salinas, which also did $18 million of work on the Carquinez and San Mateo Bridge, has about 50 of its 250 employees working on the Bay Bridge project.

Ironworkers will tie more than 1 million pieces of rebar on the project, estimated Lyle Sieg, Harris Salinas vice president of operations.

"It's like the world's biggest Lego set," Sieg said. "Our biggest risks are the height of the work. Everything is high."

It requires more than steel and iron to complete the skyway footings, pier columns and pier tables. RMC Pacific Materials of Pleasanton is supplying 260,000 cubic yards of concrete -- a runny, water-like mix that sets quickly, Caltrans spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said.

RMC, a division of the United Kingdom's RMC Group Plc., is the world's largest supplier of ready-mixed concrete. It delivers concrete to the bridge site on three customized barges. The barges are towed by tugboats between the plant and construction sites up to eight times a day, delivering nearly 100 cubic yards an hour, according to an RMC newsletter.

From the footings to the piers, all of the work on the water has kept tugboat subcontractor Westar Marine Services busy. Westar works in close quarters. The currents can be strong, the water shallow and the weather windy.

"We move barges the length of a football field next to these cofferdams," said Dan DeForge, one of two Westar supervising tugboat captains. "If we hit the cofferdam, it's very likely it would break and people would get killed."

Founded in 1976, San Francisco-based Westar provides a range of marine services from escorting tankers to delivering spare parts to ships. In 1997-98, Westar provided tug and crew boat service on the San Mateo Bridge retrofit. Bay Area bridge projects now make up the majority of its work.

"We saw that all these other bridges would be seismically retrofitted or replaced," Westar General Manager Rich Smith said. "We geared up for that work. We've been adding boats and people steadily since that time. We've tripled in size."

Of Westar's 130 employees, about 50 to 60 are working on the Bay Bridge, 20 on the Benicia Bridge and 10 to 15 on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

"There's plenty of work still coming up" from demolition of old bridges to possible retrofits of the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges, Smith said. "There's at least another 10 years probably of bridge work going on."

There also is plenty of work to do on the skyway. The most noticeable will be the roadway. The segments, made in Stockton and then barged to the Bay (please see accompanying story in Business), each weigh 480 to 780 tons. They are lifted from barges to the top of the pier columns by yellow SLEDs -- self-launching erection devices -- designed and supplied by San Jose's Schwager Davis. So far, 44 of the 452 segments have been erected.

The $5 million SLEDs project involved more than 20 North American vendors. It is the second-biggest job ever for Schwager Davis, a 22-year-old firm that has grown into a $15-million-a-year business, President Guido Schwager said.

Schwager Davis also developed a new post-tensioning system being used on the skyway. Each roadway segment is strengthened by six steel cables with a 6,000-ton capacity, enough to support 200 humpback whales.

After the roadway is erected, final touches include adding utilities and a bicycle/pedestrian path. Marinship Construction Services, co-headquartered in Oakland and San Francisco, has a $5 million contract to install the water pipe, sewage pipe and air lines. Most of the work remains to be done.

"There are lots of access issues," said Derek Smith, Marinship president. "Just being able to get in and do our work amongst all the other people working will be a logistical challenge. We've been planning this job for almost two years."

Alec Rosenberg can be reached at (510) 208-6445 or [email protected].

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