Birmingham bridge set to reopen Saturday

| 12/2/2004

Alabama’s Malfunction Junction is expected to reopen for traffic this weekend, an Alabama DOT official told Land Line

“If everything goes as planned, we will open Saturday morning,” Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said.

The opening should take place at 10 a.m. EST Saturday, Dec. 4 – roughly a month ahead of when the state originally expected to finish repairs and reconstruction.

The bridge has been out of commission since Oct. 21, when a tanker truck crashed and exploded on the northbound Interstate 59 bridge over Interstate 65 in Birmingham, AL. The truck burned with such intensity that portions of the bridge were destroyed, a spokeswoman for the Alabama DOT said.

The Birmingham News reported that the tanker fire reached 1,700 degrees, hot enough to stretch and twist the bridge’s steel girders, which in turn caused the concrete to buckle.

The bridge is part of the massive interchange, the largest in Alabama. It carries I-59 through the crossing of the two interstates.

Malfunction Junction was the site several years ago of a similar tanker crash, which also closed the highway. It took 38 days to fix the damage from that fire; state officials had estimated that the current repair would take longer.

The bridge damaged in the previous incident was 289 feet long, Harris said, while the span that was just repaired is significantly longer, about 413 feet. However, the two repairs took about the same amount of time.

The Alabama DOT received a Transportation Achievement Award from the Institute off Transportation Engineers for the 2002 reconstruction.

Harris indicated the speed of the bridge work this year looked even more impressive.

“This was about 36 days to rebuild a bridge, which is pretty remarkable,” Harris said.

In part, that speed may have been due to incentives the state offered the contractor to make sure the project was completed as quickly as possible. The contractors – Brasfield and Gorrie, and the Morris Group – will receive a $50,000 per day bonus for every day the project is complete before the Dec. 31 deadline.

If the project is finished by the time of the ceremony, Harris said the bonus could run $1.3 million. While he couldn’t say if the bonus played a big role in the early finish, he agreed it couldn’t hurt.

The state offered the incentive in part because of the cost to the public each day the bridge was closed.

“We estimate that for every day that that bridge was out of commission, it cost the traveling public in Alabama about $200,000 collectively,” he said.

Harris also credits an extraordinary effort on the part of DOT staff.

“We directed pretty much all of the resources of the department toward that one project,” he said. “We’re a state of about 4.5 million, we’ve got a department of about 4,300 employees, 92,000 miles of roadway, 15,000 bridges, and it’s pretty significant when we allocate almost all of our resources toward one project.”

The contractor made a similar effort, he said, pulling workers from other work and working on the bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“That’s not something you can do on every job that a contractor does, by any means,” Harris said. “But this is an interchange that has a traffic flow of about 250,000 vehicles a day … so we made it a high priority to get that bridge back in service.”

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor