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'Visionary' engineer's legacy spans bay area

Eugene Figg Jr. had to navigate old-guard politics before drivers could traverse his innovative bridge design.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2002


Eugene Figg Jr. had to navigate old-guard politics before drivers could traverse his innovative bridge design.

Eugene Figg Jr. designed the Sunshine Skyway to be a work of art that would evoke comparisons to a sailboat or a giant harp.

He envisioned the new Skyway as one of the three internationally known symbols of Florida, along with Cape Canaveral and Walt Disney World.

The Skyway is now perhaps Figg's greatest legacy. The acclaimed bridge engineer died Wednesday from an infection following treatment for leukemia. He was 65.

"He was a visionary," said Ken Morefield, assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. "He changed the way bridges were designed and constructed, not just in Florida but worldwide."

Figg, who lived in Tallahassee, started an engineering firm that has designed bridges in 33 states and four foreign countries.

But before he could build the Skyway, he had to endure a two-year saga of political intrigue and bureaucratic infighting.

The old bridge was torn down after an accident in May 1980 in which the freighter Summit Venture ran into one of the Skyway's two spans, knocking out the center portion of the bridge. Thirty-five people were killed.

Figg had to overcome a powerful old guard within Florida's government that was pushing to rebuild the bridge just as it had been.

Figg and his partner, French engineer Jean Muller, championed a new high-tech bridge that would be stronger and higher than the old Skyway. It would be built of concrete segments strung together on steel tendons. The bridge's main span would be supported by cables running through towers, instead of steel girders resting on piers like its predecessor.

This technology was new to the United States. The DOT hierarchy wanted a more conventional bridge. A tense showdown took place in the office of then-Gov. Bob Graham, who had Figg and a high-ranking DOT official stage a debate for him.

Figg won.

Today, Sen. Graham has photos of the new Skyway hanging in his offices in Washington.

"Gene Figg was an innovative engineer and businessman," Graham said Thursday. "The Sunshine Skyway project brought state-of-the-art design to one of the most significant bridge spans in the United States.

"He was a personal friend whose loss will be sorely felt by all those who were fortunate to have known him."

Figg was a man of drive and ambition, a perfectionist who worked 14-hour days. His gentle Carolina accent concealed an inner intensity.

A native of Charleston, S.C., he earned a civil engineering degree from the Citadel in 1958 and then worked for the Florida DOT for several years before moving into private business.

Figg and his wife, Ann Ruth, raised four daughters. Their oldest, Linda Figg, has worked with her father for two decades and is a vice president at Figg Engineering.

Aside from the Skyway, Figg designed dozens of bridges, including the Natchez Trace Parkway Arches near Nashville, the Linn Cove Viaduct in North Carolina and the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

The technological innovations Figg used in the Skyway have made large bridges less expensive to build, said Morefield, the DOT assistant secretary.

"That's what he's going to be remembered for. He pioneered the use of the segmented concrete design," Morefield said. "That, and his aesthetics. The Skyway is a very pleasing bridge to look at."

The $240-million span, which was built from 1982 to 1987, is widely admired. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who hadn't liked any American bridges built since the 1930s, called it "startlingly beautiful."

The Skyway leans to the west, its golden superstructure appearing like two sails steering the bridge out to sea. It rises nearly 200 feet above the water, about 50 feet higher than the old bridge, but its grade is less steep.

Figg picked the color of its 42 steel cables.

"Yellow-gold was the obvious choice," Figg said in 1990. "We thought of some pastel shade, but you wouldn't see it clearly against a blue sky."

The bridge has problems. It was designed to last a century, but it already is showing signs of wear. Some experts say it's deteriorating faster than it was supposed to. Cracks have developed in the foundations, and some of the structural steel has corroded and frayed.

Repairs on the bridge have become routine. But DOT officials say the Skyway is safe, and they're confident it will last at least 100 years.

"Every bridge usually goes through some of that," Morefield said. "We've changed the way we build those bridges today. If we knew then what we know today, we would have changed some of the design specifications."

At an upcoming banquet, Figg was to receive an award for lifetime achievement in bridge design from the American Society of Civil Engineers. One day next month, it will be awarded posthumously.

On that day, like every other day, about 30,000 vehicles will cross the Skyway.

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