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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 2 > Bridge Rebuilt on the Fast Track

Sept/Oct 2002
Vol. 66· No. 2

Bridge Rebuilt on the Fast Track

by Timothy Barkley and Gary Strasburg

When a crash occurs on a main travel artery, it can back up traffic for miles—causing a chain reaction affecting every route in the vicinity. If the incident occurs at an interchange of three major highways and destroys a well-traveled bridge, transportation officials have the makings of a major congestion emergency.

This exact scenario occurred at the junction of Interstates 65, 20, and 59 in downtown Birmingham, AL, on Saturday, January 5, 2002. At approximately 10 a.m., a gasoline tanker truck hit the I-65 Southbound bridge. Fire and heat caused the steel girders to sag up to 3 meters (10 feet) on one side. The interchange was engulfed in smoke that filled the skyline, visible to motorists and residents of the city.

The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT); other State, local, and Federal agencies; contractors; media; and the public all worked together to cope with one of Alabama's most devastating highway crashes. The story of their collaboration is a success story unlike any other in the State's transportation history.

Photo of collapsed bridge Photo: Alabama DOT

View of I-65 and I-59 minutes after the crash took place.

All photos by Alabama Department of Transportation
View of the I-65 bridge engulfed by smoke. Photo of bridge on fire Photo: Alabama DOT

Collapse of the Bridge

It all began when a car pulled in front of a gasoline truck to avoid missing an exit, and the truck, to keep from hitting the car, swerved and plowed into a bridge support under I-65 Southbound. The truck, which was hauling 37,475 liters (9,900 gallons) of fuel, exploded into a fireball that was estimated to have reached more than 1,093°C (2,000°F) at one point. The heat caused several of the bridge's steel girders to sag approximately 2 to 3 meters (7 to 10 feet), collapsing the structure.

Amazingly, only the driver of the truck was killed. But the crash closed not only I-65 Southbound but I-65 Northbound as well. Approximately 140,000 vehicles per day would be affected by the closure, costing users at least $100,000 a day. ALDOT had to take action immediately.

The first ALDOT employee to arrive on the scene was Michael Mahaffey, district engineer, District 1-Third Division. According to Mahaffey, the smoke and heat were so intense that he could not make a definitive assessment of the damaged bridge. "But it didn't look good," he says. "It looked like all of the bridge would probably have to be replaced."

When Miller Gorrie, chairman and CEO of Brasfield & Gorrie (who had a key role in rebuilding the bridge) walked outside that Saturday morning, he saw smoke rising in the west and wondered what was going on. "At first, I thought my church was on fire," he says, a natural fear because the congregation had just rebuilt the church due to fire. "But then I realized it was on the other side of town." As he drove downtown and got closer to the crash site, he was told that the I-65 Southbound bridge was closed. Understanding the severity of congestion that this could cause, Gorrie called a colleague, Walter Morris, president of The Morris Group, Inc., (another key player in this success story) to tell him about the incident.

Morris was in his office that Saturday morning and had already heard about the fire. He and his employees began making calls to ALDOT personnel to determine the nature and severity of the incident. Morris then proceeded to the scene to offer his services to ALDOT in taking down the bridge.

Farther south, in Montgomery, AL, Tim Colquett, supervisor of ALDOT's Bridge Design Section, was enjoying a weekend of deer hunting but happened to have his radio turned on and responded to a page alert immediately. Colquett then contacted Fred Conway, P.E., bridge engineer, and told him that he was headed to Birmingham to see what needed to be done.

When Colquett arrived, his assessment of the bridge condition was that the span over the interstate was "toast."

Pulling the Team Together

That same day ALDOT Director Paul Bowlin visited the site to make sure everything possible was being done, offer encouragement to the local maintenance crews, and assess the actions needed to reopen the interstate.

As the news began to travel throughout the State and was picked up by the national media, State and Federal officials convened an emergency meeting. Less than 24 hours after the crash took place, Bowlin met with all involved officials at ALDOT's headquarters in Montgomery. Everyone at that Sunday morning meeting agreed that the bridge had to be completely removed and rebuilt within 90 days. To get the job done quickly, the meeting participants decided that the State would have a bridge design ready within 6 days, and ALDOT would provide the chosen contractor with an incentive/disincentive for early or late completion.

Joe Wilkerson, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Alabama office, and the division's bridge engineer, Robert King, took part in that Sunday meeting. Wilkerson's role in the project was to oversee the Federal assistance needed to help the State rebuild the bridge. He and his staff also provided expertise and coordination support for ALDOT's officials and engineering staff. Once ALDOT had furnished all the documentation needed for approval of an Emergency Relief (ER) request, Wilkerson submitted it with his approval. The estimated request was $1.5 million, more than twice the ER eligible amount.

"Without the partnership between ALDOT and all concerned organizations," says Wilkerson, "this could not have happened within the time frame that it did."

Demolition and Detours

District 1 maintenance people began reporting to work by Saturday afternoon—even before their supervisors called them. George Conner, bridge maintenance engineer for ALDOT, oversaw the initial clean up, working with the District 1 and Division maintenance crews and State bridge maintenance crews.

Congestion relief was on the way. Less than 48 hours after the crash, the first I-65 Northbound lane was open. Two additional lanes were opened the following day. Many of the workers worked 48 straight hours.

Photo of bridge being demolished Photo: Alabama DOT

The beginning of the demolition of the bridge.

Installing traffic signs, re-phasing traffic signals, and rerouting traffic all had to be done immediately. District 1-Third Division sign crews began installing detour signs, and that work continued for 10 days. The signs included 11 portable message boards, 30 detour signs on overhead bridge sign structures, and 141 road trailblazers' signs. The City of Birmingham adjusted the timing of 35 traffic signals on the surface streets.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) played a significant role throughout the project. Forced to ad lib on site, the ITS staff programmed variable message signs to provide around-the-clock information and updates. Many late nights and a lot of overtime produced a detour traffic plan, which cut down on congestion delays. ITS technology and Web pages also were used to keep drivers apprised of times and alternate routes. ITS even provided truck stops with up-to-date information on detours and the status of construction.

Design for No Delays

In the meantime, Tim Colquett and Fred Conway of ALDOT's Bridge Design Section were working with their team to complete the new bridge design plans. As they worked on the design plans, Robert King provided on-site FHWA review and approval of the design.

The team considered various options. One possibility was to replace Spans 2 and 3 only, using plans from the original bridge—that is, replace in kind. Another option was to replace the entire bridge with a one-span bridge with girders perpendicular to the roadway, eliminating skew. A third possibility was to replace the entire three-span bridge using American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) type IV prestressed concrete (PSC) girders. The decision: completely replace with prestressed concrete girders. Because of the accelerated time frame for completing the bridge, the designers could not afford the time delay that steel girders would have involved.

To accommodate future widening of Northbound I-65 to include another lane and wider shoulders, the original 36.6-meter (120-foot) span length was increased to 42.7 meters (140 feet). In addition, 15.2-millimeter (0.6-inch)-diameter strand was used instead of the normal 12.7-millimeter (0.5-inch) diameter. Quick on-the-spot decisions had to be made in order to obtain bids and award a contract.

"When you are dealing with major interstates that are affected, you must act and act quickly," says Conway. He and Colquett add that there was never a sacrifice of quality or standards.

Conway and his staff completed the bridge design plans in 6 days, holding to the agreed projected date. The design plans were provided to a selected group of contractors, and bids were opened the following week.

Photo of ALDOT's bridge design team Photo: Alabama DOT

ALDOT's bridge design team (left to right): Tim Colquett, Darry Hawkins, Kevin Trawick, Winston Farrior, Kelly Weldon, Gary Wiggins, and Jeff Huner.

The Construction Phase

This was the fastest contracted project in ALDOT's history. The contract went to The Morris Group and Brasfield & Gorrie, a joint contractor venture that was acceptable to ALDOT. Their joint bid was $2.09 million. The contract included a $25,000 incentive for each day completed earlier than the 90-day completion date and a $25,000 penalty for each day completed beyond that date.

The work began at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, January 21, 2002, just 16 days after the date of the crash. Some people thought construction would actually take 6 months, and others predicted 90 days, but no one had any idea that it would be completed in just 37 days.

Photo of bridge construction at night Photo: Alabama DOT

The contractors put the construction in motion just after midnight on January 21, 2002.

Daniel Graves, project engineer, District 1-Third Division, landed the project—his first one. He was on the scene constantly. "I believed in what I was doing, and the leadership was only a call away," he says. "I can't say enough about the support that I got from management and those who worked beside me," he adds.

Chris Brown was the contractors' project superintendent, Juan Carlos Ospino and Duncan Morris the project managers. The contractors worked 24 hours per day. Since it was a calendar day job, work went on rain or shine. Amazingly, the contractors missed only 14 hours of work due to extreme weather conditions during the 37 workdays.

On behalf of ALDOT and FHWA, Mahaffey, Graves, and King all want to make it clear that there was never any sacrifice of inspection or quality control during the 24-hour work period. Night inspections were no different than day. The contractor had to abide by the same regulations and policies in these extreme circumstances as it does under normal conditions.

Whatever It Takes

Always looking for ways to get the job done correctly and quickly, ALDOT and the contractors produced some innovative ideas. Rather than one shift of 8 to 12 hours in length, the contractors decided on two shifts, each 12 hours long. The shifts consisted of 25 people each, and the crews worked several phases of the project at once.

Safety and quality of work were always paramount.

Another innovation was the use of prefabricated concrete culvert sections to construct each of the pier footings. The prefab culvert served a dual purpose of providing sheeting and shoring for the excavation and a form for pouring the concrete footings. Although not an initial cost savings, this innovation saved a great deal of time in the long run.

Another time-saving decision was the use of precast concrete girders, which were available much sooner than steel girders would have been. The center 42.7-meter (140-foot) span utilized modified AASHTO-PCI BT-54 girders. The girders were built 50.8 millimeters (2 inches) wider than usual, providing a 203.2-millimeter (8-inch) web to fit more strands to accommodate the longer girder.

In an effort to help prevent future problems, the designers included 1.83-meter (6-foot)-high crash walls. The use of concrete girders also would be a factor in preventing the bridge from bending in the event of a future high-heat situation.

Fast-Tracking the Bridge Construction

When asked about what factors contributed to the early completion of the bridge, the contractors pointed to the quick turnaround time by ALDOT personnel in responding to the need for plan revisions and problem resolutions. ALDOT bridge personnel were committed to giving this project top priority, resulting in same-day turnaround for all reviews and approvals.

High-Traffic Bridge Built In Record Time

  • Design and detailing of a complex 3-span bridge completed in 4.5 calendar days (approximately 50 man days)
  • Bridge on 60-degree skew with super elevation transition in two directions with a ridgeline
  • Contractor redesign of 42.7-meter (140-foot) span 2 Type IV to use modified BT-54 girders (high-performance concrete—8,500 psi)
  • 164 HP 12 x 53 steel piles driven
  • 627 cubic meters (820 cubic yards) of concrete poured

"If the contractor can get quick decisions that will minimize the downtime process, it would make any project successful," says Walter Morris. "ALDOT did just that for us."

Coordination and decision—making on construction also were on the fast track. ALDOT inspectors were on site 24 hours a day. Concrete strength testing was done whenever needed to facilitate getting the work done rapidly. David Hand, assistant division construction engineer, served as the on-call supervisor.

Across the board, ALDOT staff attributes the success of the emergency response to the contractors' management practices, especially scheduling and planning. Vendors such as Sherman, the precast concrete girder producer, also worked around the clock and voluntarily put other projects on hold to focus on the bridge rebuilding.

Miller Gorrie states that it was a win-win-win opportunity for the contractors, ALDOT, and the traveling public. Gorrie made frequent visits day and night to review the progress. "A job of this nature (Emergency Relief), planned by ALDOT, motivated us to perform and act quickly," he says. "The media motivated us, too, and ALDOT provided total cooperation."

Equally remarkable was the support of the news media and the local public. Newspaper and television personnel provided information, which kept the public aware of traffic congestion and alternate routes. Motorists avoided the area by using local roads and streets. The news media also maintained a constant update of construction progress, which served as a reminder of how hard everyone was working to get the road opened as soon as possible, showing that everything humanly possible was being done.

Developing a relationship with the news media even before this incident seemed to help when crunch time came. They provided support that caused a groundswell of encouragement from the public.

James Horsley, division engineer, Third Division, reports that the department typically receives a number of phone calls during construction. Not this time. "We did not get any complaints from customers," he says.

Not to be forgotten is the outstanding assistance provided by police, firefighters, road emergency personnel, and Alabama State Troopers who provided a 40-kilometer (25-mile) escort for the girders and aerial surveillance. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) also was exceptionally supportive. ADEM personnel cleared the site of hazardous materials to make it safe for construction workers even before the demolition was complete.

Finished 53 Days Ahead of Schedule

On February 27, 2002—only 53 days after the crash and, coincidentally, 53 days ahead of schedule—Governor Don Seigelman cut the ribbon officially opening the I-65 Southbound lane and I-59 Southbound lane ramp to traffic. No one had thought that this interchange emergency recovery could have taken off so swiftly. The original projection date was April 20, 2002.

"Never before has so much been done in such a short time in bridge construction to benefit so many," ALDOT's Fred Conway concludes. "ALDOT did all it could to speed construction, but the end result was due to the contractor's dedication and determination to meet or exceed his schedule."

Photo of Gov. Don Seigelman cutting ribbon Photo: Alabama DOT

Alabama Governor Don Seigelman, surrounded by workers, media, and others, cuts the ribbon for the newly rebuilt I-65/I-59 interchange bridge.


Timothy Barkley has been with FHWA's Southern Resource Center (SRC) as a marketing specialist since December 2000 and has developed a portfolio of monthly success stories and progress-in-motion articles. Bark-ley is also the contact for Technology Deployment in the SRC. He looks forward to the many opportunities to showcase the accomplishments of this center and the SRC's regional area. He can be reached by e-mail at Timothy.Barkley@fhwa.dot.gov or by phone 404-562-3732.

Gary Strasburg is the public affairs specialist for FHWA's SRC. Although he's been in that position only since March, he brings a wealth of experience as a public affairs officer with the Air Force Reserve. In that capacity, he was able to publicize many Air Force Reserve activities and looks forward to the opportunity to highlight the work that is being performed by the SRC. He can be contacted by e-mail at Gary.Strasburg@fhwa.dot.gov or by phone 404-562-3668.

For more information, please contact: Michael Mahaffey, ALDOT District Engineer, 205-581-5702; Robert King, FHWA AL Division Bridge Engineer, 334-223-7376; or Jeff Smith, FHWA-SRC Structural Design Engineer, 404-562-3905.

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