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Bridge columns to come down

The contractor relents and agrees that four cracked supports in the Memorial Causeway bridge do, in fact, need to be demolished.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published July 29, 2004


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CLEARWATER - The contractor who said it was unnecessary six weeks ago to demolish four cracked columns in the new Memorial Causeway bridge has changed course and agreed to tear them down.

Crews are scheduled to replace the concrete pillars and one footing this fall, the third time in two years that major pieces of the planned $69.3-million city showpiece will be scrapped.

The latest fix, projected to cost contractor PCL Civil Constructors about $25-million, will delay completion of the bridge at least two more years.

In documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday, the engineer that oversees the bridge builder said the columns, which straddle the channel to Clearwater Harbor and support about 1,362 linear feet of roadway, will be torn down in November.

Company vice president Jerry Harder said Wednesday that PCL is still working out the details. Harder declined to discuss specific plans, and he did not say whether the supported roadway would be demolished as well.

"The columns are coming down, but we're refining the timing of this," Harder said. "If we could do it a little sooner than (November), we would."

Last month, the bridge builder said the supports could be strengthened and sealed at a much lower cost. But state Department of Transportation officials insisted they must be replaced and that PCL pay for repairs. The $25-million cost would be more than half of the company's $48-million construction contract.

Harder declined to say whether his company would contest paying the total cost.

The damaged columns, which cracked during construction, took about nine months and cost about $3-million total t o raise.

"They're working on the timeline and on the plans on how to (replace the columns)," DOT spokeswoman Marian Scorza said. "It takes time to figure out how to do it.

"Our position has never changed. We directed them to remove and replace the cracked columns."

The bridge is now scheduled to be completed June 3, 2006.

Although the new connector to Clearwater Beach was originally supposed to open to traffic last December, Mayor Brian Aungst said building a sound structure is the top priority now.

"This needs to be done correctly," Aungst said. "We stuck by DOT to take this action. It's got to be done correctly. I can tell you, it will probably be one of the most scrutinized rebuilding of piers in the country or the world."

The decision to remove the columns is the result of just one of several mishaps since work on the bridge started in 2002.

This month, a 40-foot section of roadway riddled with cracks was removed after some three dozen fissures were discovered along the south side of the bridge near the mainland. That span was likely damaged earlier this year when 104 feet of road fell 7 inches after scaffolding holding it up buckled.

And in December 2002, crews used explosives to drop an 80-foot span on the west side of Clearwater Harbor after it sank a foot and twisted during construction.

According to DOT officials, the demolition of the piers is the largest forced rebuilding in the agency's history.

Harder, with PCL, has blamed faulty engineering for the cracked columns. Still, state officials say the bridge builder remains responsible.

Harder even said plans could change and the columns could be saved, though he did not indicate how. All work on the center columns has been stopped.

The cracks, discovered early this year, extend 6 inches into the diamond-shaped support columns on both sides of the channel. The damage probably won't cause the bridge to collapse, experts say, but it could shorten the bridge's life span.

Aungst said the 74-foot-tall bridge should last 75 years.

"We're told it can be done right," Aungst said. "Experts say it can be done right, and we are going to make sure it is."

Under the builder's DOT contract, PCL must pay the state $15,089 in damages for every day the bridge is not finished after July 23. Harder said those fines are accumulating.

Away from the construction site, residents who live near the bridge were disappointed to learn the hum of construction work will continue until summer 2006.

Cleita Karns, a 78-year-old who lives at condominiums that front the construction on nearby Pierce Street, waits for the day work is completed and her waterfront view is restored.

"Gosh, one of these days we're going to have a beautiful view under there," said Karns, looking out over Clearwater Harbor. "Two years, that doesn't sound too good. I might be dead by then.

"I hope not."

- Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 771-4303 or asharockman@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 28, 2004, 23:58:22]


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