Booster shot

June 11, 2009

Before there was pen to paper, there was concrete chunk to earth.

That’s when Missouri DOT (MoDOT) officials knew they could no longer hold on to the Tuscumbia Bridge in its current state. So with the satellite feed buzzing and shovels dangling just above the dirt line, a small gathering at the site watched a televised President Barack Obama put his signature to the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) on Feb. 17.

Before there was pen to paper, there was concrete chunk to earth.

That’s when Missouri DOT (MoDOT) officials knew they could no longer hold on to the Tuscumbia Bridge in its current state. So with the satellite feed buzzing and shovels dangling just above the dirt line, a small gathering at the site watched a televised President Barack Obama put his signature to the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) on Feb. 17.

With a flick of his own wrist, MoDOT Director Pete Rahn handed a $212,000 mobilization check to prime contractor APAC, and the group of workers became an instant success as a result of the stimulus bill, which totaled $48 billion for transportation and $27.5 billion for road and bridge work. The first ARRA-funded project in the U.S. was off and running.

“It all happened literally no more than 10 minutes [after Obama signed the bill],” Rahn told Roads & Bridges.

And not a moment too soon for that debilitating concrete which once formed the muscular piers of the Tuscumbia Bridge over the Osage River. Built in 1932, the span served the rural region well for decades until it started to deteriorate at an alarming pace. Weight restrictions were placed on the bridge, and temporary plastic fencing was used to form a makeshift safety force field around the perimeter.

Moments before the 44th president sent ARRA on its way, the Tuscumbia Bridge made that one final plea for help, and it came in the size of a football.

“When the media showed up we had to tell them to not park under the bridge, because big chunks of concrete were just littering the ground,” recalled Rahn. “While we were talking a big chunk falls down, hits the ground and crashes into one of our plastic fences that we had set up to keep people away from it. It was just perfect timing.”

Some say the ARRA dollars came just in time, but as they move through the recovery process most states think the total amount dedicated to road and bridge construction is unjust.

“Our planning number was $25 billion [in stimulus money],” said Rahn, “but rhetoric leading up to the passage grew and grew and grew, so our own expectations grew. We were hearing a lot of talk of a program significantly larger than that, so by the time they passed it at $27.5 billion it was a disappointing amount.”

Running downhill

Missouri wanted to be the first to be pulled from the frozen economic waters. In fact, Rahn and his team were so determined to be the example it started planning for ARRA in early November 2008. Projects were identified, facts were checked and the starting block was rustling with anticipation by the time the stimulus bill was fast-tracking its way through Congress.

According to Rahn, Missouri has one of the most extensive planning processes in the country, one that involves 22 planning energies. The first area that was looked at for qualified candidates was the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP).

“We went into the STIP and we looked at what projects are in this pipeline that meet the test,” said Rahn. “We were looking at those that did not have right-of-way problems or utility problems. They were projects that we could complete designs quickly.”

STIP could only provide about half of what Missouri’s ARRA take—$525 million—could handle, so officials scanned the long-range plan to fill in the rest. MoDOT then filtered all of the jobs using the requirements of the stimulus bill to come up with a final count of 143 totaling $577 million. The state purposely went with a 10% markup because projects were coming in under budget predictions and it did not want to come up short.

Missouri had set itself up to be the shotgun starter of the economic recovery movement, but there was a more personal motive to Rahn’s preparedness.

“I wanted to show all of these economists that had said the DOTs could not spend the money fast enough to help the recession that they were wrong. I just wanted to prove that DOTs could act quickly, that we could put the money to work.”

MoDOT was starting to show some vulnerability before the ARRA funds arrived. Its Amendment 3 program was creating healthy construction programs that fed off annual budgets of $1.3 billion. However, forecasters put the FY 2009 bank at just over $800 million, and Rahn was staring down 2010 numbers that were coming in at $550 million. The stimulus money and a successful Safe & Sound Bridge program has MoDOT enjoying that $1.3 billion level once again, but another dose of financial insulin will be needed soon.

“Instead of us falling off a cliff, we are now just going down a really steep hill. We are still going to end up in the same place, but with a different trajectory,” said Rahn.

The Tuscumbia Bridge site is a happy place for now. At a cost of $8.5 million, it has created 245 jobs. The new span will be similar in length to its predecessor (1,000 ft), but will be 28 ft wide instead of 20 ft, a dangerous width that caused trucks to slow down when they met each other on the main span. The project will be complete in 2010, two to three years before MoDOT would have received the necessary funding had there not been an ARRA.

Something to work with

For the first three months of 2009 it was a construction holocaust for the state of California. With the state’s budget woes obliterating prosperity, public works projects were wiped off the face of the landscape. ARRA dumped just under $2.6 billion on the region. No other state received a bigger pile of money, and contractors like Top Grade Construction were more than anxious to dive into it.

“We are continuing to see a higher bidding volume in terms of projects being advertised by the different state, city and county agencies,” Brian Gates, Top Grade Construction’s chief operating officer, told Roads & Bridges. “I think people were happy just to see funding in general around here.”

More importantly, Top Grade Construction is seeing some action. They are the prime contractor on California’s first ARRA project, which involves the reconstruction of 5 miles of I-80. A major corridor between San Francisco and Sacramento, the stretch of concrete interstate is home to 200,000 vehicles a day.

“This interstate is no different than all of the other interstates here in California that need work,” said Gates. “You have constant potholes, uneven pavement and definite failures in areas.”

When it comes to quantifying the work, Gates worked the numbers like a well-respected calculus teacher and came up with a pretty impressive ball of energy for the I-80 job: 40 different companies and 220 people will touch the project, 50,000 man-hours will be produced and a little over 40 positions will be created.

The army will have to advance quickly, because Caltrans wants work to be complete before 2009 is done.

“There are going to be issues that pop up and impact the schedule. The biggest issue is as we get through the summer and into the fall when the temperature dips at night while we are putting down the asphalt,” said Gates.

Crews will execute a crack-and-seat on the existing concrete before laying down three lifts of asphalt: a dense-graded mix, used for strength, a rubberized mix and an open-graded mix. All construction will take place at night, which is when Gates might try to work with Caltrans to explore creative options to meet the accelerated schedule.

Crunching the numbers, however, might prove to be more difficult than crunching time. Because work dried up for three months in the state of California, bidders are coming hard and heavy at every possible opportunity. The intense competition has dropped prices, which in turn is pinching profits. Top Grade Construction won the I-80 job at $13.5 million, but will not be receiving any incentives for beating or meeting the quick schedule.

“These jobs are going at ridiculous prices because everybody was sitting on their hands waiting because there was not any major work to dive into. We continue to experience 10-plus bidders on every job,” said Gates.

Chief Indian concern

A small group in Florida was standing in protest over perhaps one of the biggest-ticketed ARRA items in the country: the Indian Street Bridge in Stuart, Fla. The new span is going for $128 million and has been locked up for the past 20 years by a lack of funding.

Odias Smith has been fighting the production of the bridge for decades, and recently told CNN that “the president should know that this is a boondoggle, and he is getting swindled.”

Other opponents claim that the new route is an expensive way to relieve congestion off the Palm City Bridge, which currently is the only way over the St. Lucie River in the area, and that much of the right-of-way for new construction has not been acquired, defying the ARRA requirement of “shovel-ready.”

Florida DOT officials beg to differ. Plans for the design-build project were expected to get moving in June, and 16 of the 18 right-of-way parcels for the bridge construction, which will be the first to take shape, have already been purchased. The remaining two will be squared away by December. Crews will officially break ground in January 2010, well before the one-year deadline marked by the federal government for state DOTs to have all ARRA money committed. All 58 right-of-way parcels are expected to be in hand by February 2011, and the new bridge should be up and running by early 2012.

As for the congestion issue, FDOT said the two-lane Palm City Bridge already handles 47,000 motorists daily and point to the Martin County Long Range Transportation Plan, which called for a second crossing as far back as 1987.

“This project has been the No. 1 priority for years,” Barbara Kelleher, spokesperson for FDOT, told Roads & Bridges. “We have gone through all of the standard steps, we just haven’t had the money sitting there available.”


More help on the way

At a luncheon at the Union League Club of Chicago in mid-May, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the availability of $1.5 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grants for capital investment in surface transportation projects. The grants can range from $20 million up to $300 million to support high-impact transportation projects.

“TIGER discretionary funding will open up the door to many new innovative and cutting-edge transportation projects,” said LaHood. “I believe that these projects will promote greater mobility, a cleaner environment and more livable communities.”

Applications for TIGER discretionary grants must be submitted by Sept. 15. To see a video on LaHood’s press conference after the luncheon, go to www?.roads?bridges?.com and click on “Giants of the Industry.”

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