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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 63· No. 2 > Bridge, Little Bridge: The Big Dig Soars Across the Charles River

Sept/Oct 1999
Vol. 63· No. 2

Bridge, Little Bridge: The Big Dig Soars Across the Charles River

by Sybil Hatch

It's the Friday before Memorial Day 1998, and Boston motorists are swarming onto the freeways for their annual weekend getaways. Commuters are anxious to get home for the holiday weekend. Truckers are making their final deliveries for the week. And someone notices that the upper deck of the existing Interstate 93 bridge crossing the Charles River has settled several inches near an expansion joint.

The bridge is closed. Urgent phone calls are made. Central Artery/Tunnel engineers and inspectors rush to the site. The project team has spent upwards of three billion dollars worth of hours and effort to keep Boston open to traffic during construction. "Did we cause this?" is the question foremost on their minds.

Two new Charles River bridges.
A computer image of the two new Charles River bridges, looking south. The 10-lane cable-stayed bridge is due to open in 2001. The four-lane box girder is due to open in the fall of 1999.

Keeping I-93 and its Charles River bridge open while building under and around it is a monumental effort. The plan calls for underpinning and transferring the load from the existing I-93 footings to the walls of the new underground tunnel that leads up to the bridge. After traffic is flowing through the tunnel and onto the new Charles River bridges, I-93 will be demolished.

But the underpinning work in that area was not scheduled to begin until later in the summer of 1998. It turned out that several stringer beam webs had buckled, causing the bridge span to settle. Central Artery/Tunnel managers breathed a sign of relief, and the Massachusetts Highway Department directed emergency repairs, opening the bridge again in time for traffic returning to the city after the long weekend.

Past Its Prime

The I-93 closure confirmed what the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) had known since first conceptualizing the Central Artery/Tunnel project in the mid-1980s: the bridge and freeway system was sorely in need of replacement.

When the I-93 double-decked steel-truss bridge over the Charles River was built in 1959, 75,000 vehicles traveled over it each day. On any given day in 1998, the bridge carried more than 190,000 vehicles.

The existing bridge is completely overwhelmed. Because of local-access traffic patterns, the existing northbound I-93 mainline narrows from three lanes to two, allowing traffic from Boston's Government Center via Storrow Drive to access the freeway.

"Very congested and very confused," says Terry Brown, an MTA spokesperson. "We have disparate pieces of highway that don't work together."

An overarching goal of the Central Artery/Tunnel project is to eliminate confusion. (See the sidebar, "Revolutionizing Boston.") Mainline, interchanges, on- and off-ramps, and bridges are being completely rebuilt so that the entire highway system through Boston works.

Bridges in the Making

The new Charles River bridges - the mainline bridge and the Storrow Drive Connector bridge - are an integral part of the new system. The people designing and constructing these two bridges call them "Big Bridge" and "Little Bridge," respectively. These bridges will replace the existing I-93 bridge.

The Big Bridge holds four lanes in each direction plus two dedicated lanes for direct access to a nearby neighborhood. The Little Bridge has two lanes in each direction. The total of 14 lanes more than doubles existing capacity. But perhaps more importantly, the new bridges eliminate the confusion and the safety problems caused by the Byzantine web of weaving, merges, and bottlenecks.

The Charles River bridges were designed by HNTB under the supervision of a joint venture of the Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff companies. Daniel O'Connell Sons is constructing the Little Bridge, and an Atkinson-Keiwit joint venture team is building the Big Bridge, with the Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff team providing program management, inspection, and oversight during construction. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is providing technical and administrative expertise throughout the entire project.

History and Elegance

The mainline bridge is the gateway to downtown Boston. From many proposed designs, MTA ultimately chose a cable-stayed bridge by Swiss bridge designer Christian Menn. Its stately 82-meter-tall inverted-Y towers mirror the shape of Boston's Bunker Hill Revolutionary War Monument in the neighboring Charlestown section of Boston.

The new Big Bridge.
The new "Big Bridge" will replace the old "High Bridge," built in 1954. The inverted Y south tower is in the background, and in the foreground are the cable foundations for the bridge.

The 429-meter-long bridge, with an $93 million price tag, has five spans: two back spans of 34 and 40 meters on the downtown (south) end, two back spans of 76 and 52 meters on the Charlestown (north) end, and a 227-meter main span. The bridge, with steel box edge girders and steel floor beams in the main span and cast-in-place post-tensioned concrete on the back spans, is the first "hybrid" cable-stayed bridge in the United States.

Girders and two planes of cables will support the main span. The back spans are supported by a single plane of cables. Maintaining the traffic flow from the existing I-93 to Storrow Drive effected the layout of the cable stays. It was necessary to move the back-span stay-cable connections to the superstructure from the edge (from the outside similar to the main span) to the center. But this is only one of many other features built into the bridge to optimize traffic flow and accommodate obstructions around and below the bridge.

A composite steel box girders with a cast-in-place concrete deck will form the $26 million Storrow Drive bridge, which is about 30 meters west of the cable-stayed bridge. It has three continuous spans, 69-, 116-, and 69-meters-long, respectively. The 9.4-meter-wide steel box girder, with cantilever floor beams, make up a finished roadway width of 22 meters. They are thought to be the largest of their type in North America.

A Busy Corridor

There are major obstructions all around the project. Some were known before construction and some were not.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's (MBTA) Orange Line tunnel crosses the river at the same location as the north tower of the mainline bridge. The bridge foundations straddle the Orange Line tunnel, a concrete box about 10.7 meters wide by 9.1 meters deep.

Its roof is about 12 meters below the top of the bridge foundation. Prior to construction, Atkinson-Keiwit probed widely and deeply to verify the Orange Line tunnel's exact location. However, during installation of steel sheeting for cofferdams at the north tower, they found more than they bargained for - the coffer and a 0.91-meter waler, used during original Orange Line installation, at a depth of 12 meters.

The north tower foundation plans originally called for a 6-meter-thick reinforced concrete footing with a 2-meter-thick concrete tremie seal. This would be eight meters deep.

The south tower foundation straddles a 0.91-meter-diameter water main and is two meters away from the Orange Line tunnel. The water main, parallel to the slope down to the water, was not located at the elevations originally thought, causing an extra cofferdam to be installed for protection. Portions of the pipe were encased in concrete for added protection.

Dedicated Lanes

Traffic, itself, caused significant design challenges. A very constricted waterfront area precluded the North End neighborhood on the south end of the bridge from having its own northbound on-ramp. Motorists would have to travel south, then turn around to get onto I-93 northbound.

The ultimate solution was two cantilevered lanes on the east side of the mainline bridge. The cantilevered portion will accommodate northbound traffic from the Sumner Tunnel and the North End, but it creates an asymmetric cross-section.

The asymmetric layout posed significant design challenges. The cantilever loads along the main span are carried by the east side cables at stresses up to 50 percent higher than on the west side. Also, with 10 lanes of traffic, this bridge is the widest cable-stayed bridge ever built. The entire bridge design has undergone intense scrutiny from a panel of experts convened by FHWA to evaluate its viability and integrity.

Little Elbow Room

Space to work and laydown areas are major issues throughout the Central Artery/Tunnel project. Separate contractors are working on four different projects in the south shore area alone. One strip of staging area was accidentally promised to two contractors at once. Atkinson-Keiwit is using barges in the river for extra space.

But construction access space is not the only item that requires precision coordination and planning. The entire traffic management sequence is a carefully choreographed effort of building structures, moving traffic onto them, demolishing existing structures, and building replacements.

For example, the Storrow Drive bridge will be open for traffic in autumn 1999. A portion of the I-93 traffic, both northbound and southbound, will be routed onto the new bridge, freeing up existing off-ramps that cut across the new mainline. These off-ramps will be removed just prior to opening the new mainline northbound lanes in 2002.

Revolutionizing Boston

The Central Artery/Tunnel project is the largest, most complex, and technologically challenging highway project ever attempted in American history. The project, in essence, will replace the existing I-93 elevated highway with an underground expressway and will extend I-90 to Logan Airport.

The project will dramatically reduce traffic congestion and improve mobility in one of America's oldest and most congested major cities, improve the environment, and lay the groundwork for New England's continued economic growth. Traffic on I-93 now crawls for more than 10 hours each day. The accident rate on the deteriorating highway is four times the national average for urban interstates. The annual cost to motorists from this congestion - in terms of an elevated accident rate, wasted fuel from idling in stalled traffic, and late delivery charges - is estimated at $500 million.

The project spans slightly more than 12 kilometers of highway with about 260 lane-kilometers in all and with about half of that in tunnels. The Central Artery/Tunnel project will place 2.9 million cubic meters of concrete and excavate almost 10 million cubic meters of soil - thus the nickname "The Big Dig," evoking memories of the Panama Canal, "The Big Ditch." The larger of the two Charles River bridges, a 10-lane cable-stayed bridge, will be the widest ever built and the first to use an asymmetrical design.

Major challenges for the project's designers and builders include difficult soil conditions, tight working space, the proximity to huge glass-and-steel office towers and fragile old brick buildings, the need to hold up an elevated highway while tunneling directly beneath it, and keeping Boston open for business throughout 14 years of construction.

Along with improving mobility in notoriously congested downtown Boston, the Central Artery/Tunnel project was conceived to reconnect neighborhoods severed by the old elevated highway and to improve the quality of life in the city beyond the limited confines of the new expressway. Air quality experts predict a 12-percent reduction in citywide carbon monoxide levels. More than 60 hectares of open land and parks will be created, including 11 hectares where the existing Central Artery now stands.

The project has been under construction since late 1991. The cost of the Central Artery/Tunnel project is $10.8 billion through project completion in 2004. The federal government will pay around 70 percent of the cost, and the commonwealth of Massachusetts will pay the remainder. Check out www.bigdig.com for great pictures of this impressive project.

Looking north, Little Bridge(left), Big Bridge (right).
View, looking north, of the south tower of the cable-stayed "Big Bridge." The steel box girder "Little Bridge" is to the left, and the current I-93 bridge is to the right.

Building It Right

The Big Bridge's main span is being built piece by piece, said Al MacPhail, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff's resident engineer.

"First you build the uprights, then install the steel edge girders. You place three floor beams on each girder and put spacers between them. You tie up the whole thing with cables, then lay precast concrete decking onto the top," MacPhail said.

"Easy," he said with a smile.

The original design and specifications for the north back spans called for construction by incremental launch to avoid disturbing three active ramps to and from I-93 on the north side of the bridge. However, the Atkinson-Kiewit team proposed using conventional falsework supported by 0.91-meter-diameter pipe columns throughout the complex interchange, saving the project almost a million dollars and shaving nearly a year off the schedule.

Many pieces of steel in the bridges are more than 22.5 metric tons, and there is a lot of steel in these bridges. Steel fabricators throughout the United States are working at their highest capacity, and it was difficult to obtain the amount of steel needed for the project in a timely manner.

Innovative Cable Construction

More than 2,900 kilometers of steel wire will form the seven-wire strand of the multiple strand stay cables. The largest cable is almost one-third of a meter in diameter. There are 116 stay cables with 15 to 73 strands per cable. The total force in each cable varies from about 1,292 kilonewtons to 8,550 kilonewtons.

In traditional cable-stayed bridge construction, a multistrand jack weighing about 1.8 to 2.7 metric tons is used to tension the entire bundle of strands. However, a French isotensioning technique will be used, wherein each strand within the bundle is tensioned independently using a comparatively tiny jack weighing only 45 to 90 kilograms. This isotensioning method is new in the United States, but not in Europe.

Elastomeric dampers will be installed within the cable bundle at bridge deck level to reduce vibrations in the cables. Cross-ties have been routinely used to mitigate wind-induced vibrations, and although bridge designers are still analyzing vibrations, four main-span planes will still need cross-ties.

Partnering Makes It Work

Massachusetts is not the only state to benefit from this project. The cable-stay bridge incorporates material fabricated from all over the United States. The cable strands are made in Florida. The structural steel sections are manufactured in Colorado. The cable anchorages are fabricated in California. The precast concrete sections are manufactured in Virginia. The single unit box girders for the Storrow Drive Bridge were made in Tampa Bay, Fla., and moved by barge to Charlestown, Mass.

Other Central Artery/Tunnel contracts also incorporate material from various states. Most notably, structural steel is being fabricated or fit up in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. In addition, other project elements have varied points of origin: ventilation fans from Ohio, ceiling panels from Oklahoma and Vermont, tiles from Indiana and North Carolina, and temporary bridge elements from New York.

Furthermore, a precast concrete plant has been established in Sanford, Maine. This plant, which was converted from a vacant, pre-World War II airport hanger, was established specifically for a Central Artery/Tunnel contract, but it will continue to cast segments for other construction contracts around the country.

And the project's solid foundation, upon which all decisions and actions are based, is the team relationship between FHWA, MTA, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Atkinson-Keiwit.

"Good communications is the key to teamwork and a successful job," noted MacPhail. "Everyone who is working on this project, from the laborers all the way through the management team, has an immense sense of pride at building such a challenging and significant project."

Sybil Hatch is a technical and marketing communications consultant, specializing in the engineering and construction industry. She has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in geotechnical engineering, both from Virginia Tech. She is a registered professional engineer in California and has been practicing civil and geoenvironmental engineering for 13 years.

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