Midnight crews install American Tobacco Trail bridge section

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2013 

The spectators began gathering on the I-40 off-ramp before midnight Saturday and stayed well into Sunday for an informal street party. They came to witness what some deemed historic, others declared a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and still others beheld in speechless wonder.

The scene that unfolded ahead of them could have been mistaken for a movie set or accident scene. As floodlights bathed the work area, a steel bridge, guided by a trio of cranes, hovered UFO-like over six lanes of asphalt below.

After more than two decades of local organizing, the 270-foot span over I-40 will provide a vital link for the 22-mile American Tobacco Trail, an old rail spur that is being converted into one of the Triangle’s premiere walking and cycling trails.

“Neither Rome, nor the American Tobacco Trail, was built in a day,” remarked Durham resident Mark Dessauer and an employee with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. “I had to see this. We’ve been promised this bridge for years.”

What was an engineering exercise and budgeting challenge for public officials became a social happening for organizers of the American Tobacco Trail, Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the East Coast Greenway Alliance, not to mention fans of neighborhood bicycling, hiking and jogging.

About two dozen onlookers set up folding chairs and camera tripods, snacking through the cool night on stuffed grape leaves, canapés and cookies supplied by rails-to-trails advocates. One outdoorsman materialized from the inky darkness on his bicycle, towing his 4-year-old son in a trailer.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful, so exciting,” said Debbie West, the office manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. “I’ve never sat on the freeway before, other than being stuck in traffic in D.C.”

The public will have to wait until July for the opportunity to cross the footbridge that now spans the interstate. Blythe Construction of Charlotte will next install safety fencing, lighting and the 12-inch thick deck on which tires will roll and soles will tread.

The local trail is also a link in multi-state East Coast Greenway that will one day link the Florida Keys to Maine and is being dubbed as the urban equivalent of the Appalachian Trail.

The lifting and moving of the arched span, which had been resting on the shoulder of I-40, was the most dramatic step of a long process marked by cost increases, delays and engineering problems in a $9 million project.

The bridge work was conducted more than 100 yards away from the makeshift spectators gallery, where a crowd milled about underneath the exit sign for Fayetteville Road and Southpoint mall.

Some watched through telephoto lens and binoculars.

By midnight, a smaller crane was servicing the main one, by stacking 10-ton slabs as counterweights to keep his bigger cousin from toppling over under the weight of the dangling bridge.

Workers unanchored the bridge as the crane began winching the cable.

“We have liftoff,” declared Ed Venable, Durham’s contract management supervisor on the project, at 1:25 a.m.

The arches levitated and ever-so-slowly floated into full view, hanging in midair. Within 15 minutes the aerial ballet was over and the steel framework was slotted in position over the interstate. Workmen quickly swarmed in like ants and began anchoring the bridge with Big Mac-sized hex nuts.

“That crane was so graceful,” West said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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