Today, some will take the high road
After many obstacles, the raised highway from Brandon to Tampa opens today for morning commuters.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published July 18, 2006
BRANDON - The elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway stretch 6 miles from Brandon to Tampa, untouched, gleaming, the color of mint ice cream.
Today, more than two years after a devastating collapse that added about $100-million to the price tag, the road opens for the first time.
From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. only, drivers with a SunPass transponder will be able to zoom along the upper deck from the eastern Hillsborough suburbs to downtown Tampa.
The highway won't open for the afternoon drive home until August. When it does, traffic will change direction and flow from downtown to Brandon.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Almost from the beginning, the project has been dogged by disaster.
The unfinished highway collapsed with a sound like a thunderclap on April 13, 2004, as a support column sank 11 feet into the earth. Concrete chunks the size of fists rained onto drivers below.
The state threatened to disband the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. Later, the authority filed a still-ongoing lawsuit against the project's main engineers. About 155, or roughly three-fourths, of the support pillars had to be reinforced with "sister shafts" or "mini-piles" on either side, preventing another collapse, adding about $100-million to the project's original $350-million price tag.
Yet Expressway Authority officials say the project was worth the pain and money.
And yes, they say, it will be safe for commuters.
"Considering the significance of the issue," said executive director Ralph Mervine, "the project has gone very smoothly."
* * *
The elevated highway was the brainchild of Pat McCue, then the Expressway Authority's executive director.
McCue was an engineer who described himself as an artist. "I can't draw, I can't paint," he said in 2003. "But the pleasure I get is from building and creating beautiful things."
He vowed that under his direction the authority would create only structures that were "beautiful and radical."
The elevated highway was conceived as a way to increase the Crosstown's capacity and ease commuter traffic between Brandon and Tampa. The plan called for a series of support columns, each one rising from the ground like the stem of a champagne flute.
Because the highway would soar above the existing expressway, with its supports rooted in the lower highway's median, the authority wouldn't have to buy any land to expand the highway's traffic capacity.
The design won awards before construction even began.
But on that Tuesday in April 2004, toll collectors on the expressway heard a rumble. It was coming from the incomplete upper span.
As one of the span's supports descended into a massive pit of soft earth, the road it had supported buckled and folded up like a sheet of paper.
Two workers were injured as chunks of concrete plummeted to the ground.
Mervine said recently that the disaster actually proved the integrity of the highway's design.
"That bridge stayed together," he said. "It's an unfortunate example, but you could have driven across that section. That's the strength of the bridge."
The steel cables in the concrete were so strong, he said, that explosives had to be used to dismantle the collapsed section.
The day after the collapse, McCue said that the disaster could not have been prevented.
At that time, everyone assumed that a sinkhole had opened underneath the support column. Such sinkholes were "essentially undetectable," McCue said.
Later, the Expressway Authority board would fire McCue and accuse its engineering contractor, URS Corp, of negligence.
In July 2004, a second column sank about 1.3 inches into the earth.
Now the authority knew it wasn't dealing with an isolated sinkhole. Seismic testing found that the ground beneath that area of the highway was a mix of limestone and "muck."
Further testing would eventually reveal that about 155 of the columns were on soft ground. They would need some kind of support on either side in order to bear the weight of the highway.
The project's future looked grim. In October, McCue told reporters that state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, were trying to disband the Expressway Authority.
"They will have to kill me or vindicate me before this is over," he said.
A few days later, the authority board fired him.
As it turned out, McCue was right: State legislators really were trying to disband the authority. Then-Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, suggested that the Legislature repeal the statute that created the authority. The move was supported by Gov. Bush.
With McCue gone, however, the authority won a reprieve. Lee changed his mind, saying that the authority should be allowed to continue its work - and that the elevated highway should be finished.
* * *
But salvaging the highway would not be cheap.
The final price to fix the span was more than $90-million - roughly a third of the project's original cost.
To finance a loan to cover the added cost, the authority voted to raise its tolls starting next year.
The board also headed to court to try to recoup the cost of repairs from its engineering contractor, URS Corp.
In October 2005, the Expressway Authority filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court accusing URS of not sufficiently testing the soil under the Crosstown.
URS knew about the patchy limestone-and-muck mixture, the suit alleged, but did nothing to make sure each column rested on firm ground.
URS maintained it had done nothing wrong.
"We've always stood by our design," said regional vice president Tom Logan.
That lawsuit is heading to court after pretrial mediation ended in impasse. Meanwhile, the authority's insurer has also sued URS for money paid out for the collapse.
* * *
On a hot, windy day in June, Ralph Mervine stood 60 feet above sea level on the surface of the new highway.
It was freshly painted, and smelled faintly of concrete and chlorine. There was a lot left to finish: the electrical wiring, the drains, the signs. But it seemed solid enough under Mervine's feet.
While construction was under way, Mervine said, he often spent evenings here with workers.
"I go out to show them that it's important, that the authority is very interested in the progress of the work," he said.
He pointed to the metal arches that will electronically register SunPass boxes in cars traveling below. The high-speed cameras are meant to catch cheaters.
"Have you ever seen a hummingbird's wings in a photo?" he asked. "The cameras are very fast."
Mervine's not an artist, not like McCue, whom he replaced. He jokes about the fate of poor engineers forced to take humanities courses in college.
But when he talks about the bridge, he waxes poetic.
He stares at the play of light on the underside of the highway.
"Look at those shadows as that truck goes by," he said. "I think it's amazing how much it reflects."
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 813 661-2442 or email@example.com.
[Last modified July 18, 2006, 10:22:01]
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