WEB EXCLUSIVE: Minneapolis evolves with its light equipment

Nov. 17, 2008

It has been 50 years since the first Melroe self-propelled loader was built in Gwinner, N.D., changing the way work gets done. Don’t recognize the name, you say? Perhaps you’d recognize it as the predecessor to the Bobcat skid-steer loader. From everyday tasks to one-of-a-kind projects, the introduction of the compact front-end loader significantly reduced manual labor and mechanized jobs to improve overall efficiencies.

It has been 50 years since the first Melroe self-propelled loader was built in Gwinner, N.D., changing the way work gets done. Don’t recognize the name, you say? Perhaps you’d recognize it as the predecessor to the Bobcat skid-steer loader. From everyday tasks to one-of-a-kind projects, the introduction of the compact front-end loader significantly reduced manual labor and mechanized jobs to improve overall efficiencies. Who would have guessed that one invention would have changed the course of the construction industry so dramatically—especially the business of road and bridge construction and maintenance?

Although the compact equipment industry traces its roots to agriculture in North Dakota, the machines have come a long way to become one of the premier equipment choices for street and bridge contractors and public works departments across North America. The growing popularity of these machines can be traced to the skid-steer loader’s compact size, dependability, light footprint, durability and attachment versatility.

The city of Minneapolis Bridge Maintenance Department is an example of how these adaptable machines are successfully used today. Dennis Thoreson, general foreman for the department, is responsible for maintaining more than 600 bridges in Hennepin County. These bridges are owned by the city, park board, county and state. Because of this, cooperation is required between Thoreson’s crews and the owners to ensure that ongoing maintenance, construction and landscaping is completed.

Thoreson said that the bridge maintenance department has been operating Bobcat equipment since the mid-1980s. What’s even more interesting is that the city of Minneapolis has owned Bobcat skid-steer loaders since 1963, when the construction and maintenance divisions of the city’s public works department replaced manual laborers with the loaders to improve productivity.

A March 1979 article from Rural and Urban Roads magazine—the previous name for today’s Roads and Bridges magazine—titled “City’s skid-steer loaders do big work at small sites,” highlighted the city of Minneapolis and how the public works department had purchased a skid-steer loader to “help reduce crew hand-labor.” The article went on to say “soon, six more skid-steer units were put into service and eventually a new public works plan evolved.” The city used their skid-steer loaders for street cleaning, sweeping, snow removal, pavement repairs and boulevard/secondary street paving and rehabilitation.

Nearly 30 years later, the bridge maintenance department still relies on Bobcat compact equipment for a variety of vital year-round tasks. It owns a fleet of Bobcat machines—including nine skid-steer loaders, a compact track loader, two compact excavators and numerous attachments—to minimize labor needs at a time when finding good employees is particularly difficult.

“If we didn’t have this equipment, where I have 18 people, I’d need 38-plus because it would be more labor intensive,” Thoreson said. “The skid-steer equipment allows us to do more—work more efficiently with less manpower.”

Before the department switched to Bobcat equipment, it operated machines that cost approximately $75,000 and were considerably less versatile than the machines of today. Thoreson said he can purchase about four Bobcat loaders for the same price, and they can do so much more than his previous machines with the attachment capability.

Attachments keep compact machines busy

In 1970, Bobcat took a giant leap forward for the compact equipment industry with the introduction of the Bob-Tach attachment mounting system. It turned the skid-steer loader into a versatile work machine that could use multiple attachments and replace dedicated, single-use equipment.

Nearly 40 years after Bobcat introduced the Bob-Tach system, departments like Minneapolis’ bridge maintenance division are still benefiting from this invention. Thoreson said that his crews use augers to install crash barriers and fence posts and drill footings and pilings; hydraulic breakers to remove curbs and gutters, and approach panels during full-depth removals; a planer to grind down sidewalk panels or take out a high panel; pallet forks to transport building materials and supplies; angle brooms to remove light snow during the winter or construction debris during the repair season; and a sweeper to collect waste and place it into a truck or dumpster.

Winter wears on busy bridges

Wintertime is particularly tough on Minneapolis bridges. The bridge department is responsible for making sure that sidewalks are passable for pedestrians. “We have 10 snow routes that require use of the Bobcat loaders, light material buckets, snowblowers and salt and sand spreaders to clear snow and ice,” Thoreson said. “Until the mid-80s, we had only one Bobcat loader, and it would take a week to 10 days to make the sidewalks passable. Now we can do it with the Bobcat loaders and attachments, with fewer workers, in a day or a day-and-a-half. The Bobcat equipment mechanized our department.”

You might be asking: Where does all of that snow go? With Bobcat loaders and snowblower attachments, Thoreson’s crews have two options for efficiently moving the snow. “We either blow it into the back of a truck or we blow it off the end of the bridge. If it’s a short bridge, we can blow it over it, depending on what is underneath. A lot of the bridges we maintain are above bike paths, so with the snow blower’s chute we can aim it to a grassy area. The bulk of the snow is blown over on the embankments.

“When the snow plows push the snow back on the sidewalks, we’ll go back for up to 10 days to keep it clear. We previously spent a whole day on one bridge. Now, we can clear 50 or 60 bridges a day after they are plowed back in.”

Spring cleanup

After a long, cold and snowy winter, the bridge department is assigned to get things looking sharp again. “We use a lot of salt and sand on our roads during the winter,” Thoreson said. “In the spring, all the car and truck traffic pushes the sand and salt on the sidewalk. We use the skid-steer loaders and angle brooms to push it into the streets, and another Bobcat loader with a sweeper attachment will follow behind and collect it.”

Minneapolis bridges need special attention after a season of salting and sanding. “We get a lot of delamination on our concrete bridge decks,” Thoreson said. Come spring, crews with skid-steer loaders and attachments are on the bridges, repairing them with minimal disruption to the traffic patterns.

“We use the Bobcat skid-steer loaders, buckets and angle brooms as part of the bridge repair, specifically to load loose concrete, then follow with an angle broom attachment to sweep out the area,” Thoreson said. “Instead of having two or three laborers cleaning with hand brooms, we can use the angle broom bristles to clean an inch-and-an-half hole and get the loose material out.”

Thoreson said a significant project for his department in 2008 is repairing the 30-year-old Camden Bridge, which includes cutting damaged concrete into removable pieces with saws, breaking it apart, sweeping the hole and patching it. The Camden Bridge is a Mississippi River crossing that is about 1,800 ft long and 70 ft wide, with four lanes of traffic. “We’ll spend about two weeks per side, making repairs, and another week letting the new concrete cure,” Thoreson explained. “Throughout the summer, we’ll do between 200 and 300 patches to other bridges, just not as in-depth as the Camden Bridge.”

Another sign of spring is landscaping crews working again. Sometimes wet ground conditions can keep crews from getting started as early as they would like, or stuck in the shop because of soggy ground conditions. Thankfully, compact track loaders are available to meet these challenges and provide a solution for getting back to work sooner. In 1999, Bobcat revolutionized the compact equipment industry with the introduction of the 864—the first compact track loader manufactured in the U.S. with a solid-mounted undercarriage for superior durability. The compact track loaders’ better digging and pushing performance, and low ground pressure, have proven useful to Thorseon’s bridge crews. “We have a T250 track loader that we use to landscape embankments.” Crews use a pallet fork to lift and carry landscaping materials, an auger for planting new landscape features and a bucket for excavating and final grading.

Excavators fit in tight spots where other equipment can’t

Bobcat entered the compact excavator market in 1986. Today, it is the only compact excavator manufacturer that builds machines in the U.S. Two Bobcat excavators are used by the Minneapolis Bridge Maintenance Department’s crews to repair retaining walls in city alleys. “The city has a lot of alleys with retaining walls in the back,” Thoreson said. “We can’t get the bigger backhoes to where we need to make our repairs. That’s where the Bobcat excavators come in handy. We have to work around garages on each side, power lines and power poles. The city’s equipment division’s smallest backhoe is 55,000 lb and is twice as high as our compact excavator.”

On demand

The Bridge Maintenance Department’s Bobcat equipment is so popular that other city departments frequently request the machines, attachments and operators to complete difficult projects or replace manual labor. “Our sewer and pavement department will rent our machines or hire us to do the work for them,” Thoreson said. “We may be laying sod for pounding out pavement because, other than the street department, we’re the only ones that own Bobcat machines. We’ve put the loaders down in tunnels where we’ve cleaned sewer lines by pushing out sludge.”

The city of Minneapolis continues to depend on reliable Bobcat machines and attachments for its day-to-day Bridge Maintenance Department’s success. Bobcat Co.’s compact machines have enabled the department and others like it in cities across North America to prosper and find a way to complete projects more efficiently.

About The Author: Johnson is with Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.

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