Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Durham’s I-40 footbridge project stumbles from one delay to another

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 23, 2013 

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Workmen for Blythe Construction of Charlotte install reinforced wire mesh safety panels along one side of the incomplete American Tobacco Trail Interstate 40 overpass span Dec. 13.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— The ribbon-cutting was planned for July. Then for October. Well, city officials said in mid-autumn, the work would surely be finished by the end of December.

Now the American Tobacco Trail footbridge over Interstate 40, near Streets at Southpoint mall, will be completed, perhaps, in January. Or February.

Marvin Williams, the Durham public works director, doesn’t want to mark it on his calendar again.

“I’m shy of doing that now, because we’ve had a few misses, and the weather is not our friend right now,” Williams said last week. “So I’d rather take it week by week and see. I really do believe we are making good progress, but at this point I cannot commit to a date.”

And who can blame him? Clearly, this bridge is jinxed.

Of course, when it is finished – and I’m optimistic that this will happen sometime in 2014 – the American Tobacco Trail Bridge will be a treasured addition to the Triangle landscape.

It is distinguished by a graceful pair of steel-tube arches lifting the concrete walkway over six lanes of I-40 traffic near the mall and Fayetteville Road.

The bridge will provide the missing link in the trail, a splendid 22-mile greenway from downtown Durham into rural Chatham and Wake counties. It will extend the reach of a Triangle trail network that has been enhanced already with other handsome bridges that take cyclists and hikers across freeways in Cary and Raleigh.

But let’s get back to the jinxed part.

Durham folks were talking about a footbridge over I-40 in the late 1990s, when developers began turning farms south of the city into condos, offices and one of the region’s biggest shopping malls. The project was delayed by designs and redesigns, bids and rebids, problems with permits and with inflation, and occasional confusion at City Hall. For a few years, it seemed doomed.

Finally, a contract was awarded in 2012 to build the bridge and to complete the last 4.2-mile section of the American Tobacco Trail. Drivers on I-40 were fascinated early this year to see the bridge work get under way.

The twin arches were delivered in pieces and welded together on the freeway shoulder. One night in April, all traffic was stopped while a giant crane lifted the 270-foot-long steel structure into the air and lowered it into position for workers who bolted it into place.

Problems multiply

For that one night, the folks who designed and built this bridge looked like geniuses. But if you consider all the problems that have postponed its completion by six months and counting, they don’t look so smart now.

The arches were made from sheets of steel that had to be bent and curled into tubes, and the steel fabricator had difficulty with the job. So the steel arrived late.

Meanwhile, they managed to build the concrete supports for the bridge 2.5 feet too high on the north side of I-40. There’s a dispute between the surveyor and the concrete subcontractor, Williams said, about whom to blame for this stunning blunder.

The too-tall section had to be cut down to size, and that fascinating night in April came two months later than it had been scheduled.

Then there were problems with the bridge walkway and the safety fence intended to keep people and things from falling onto the freeway below. When the walkway surface was paved, it became a little pond that collected rainwater. When the fence posts were painted, the paint started peeling.

So the fence post painters had to strip off the paint and try again. The concrete crew was ordered to pour another layer of concrete to build the walkway surface a few inches higher, so the rain would run off.

And the safety fence itself was too slack to be safe.

“Our inspectors noticed there wasn’t enough tension in the fencing,” Williams said. “So when you pushed on it, it had more give than we expected.”

There were disagreements between the designer and the contractor about how the fence supports were supposed to be attached to the bridge.

“We felt there may not have been enough information provided with the details of the drawings, to give the contractor clear direction as to where those anchor systems needed to go and at what angle,” Williams said.

New tension clips were ordered, to pull the fencing tighter when it is attached to the posts. The original steel mesh fence panels were removed, and replacements were ordered.

“The contractor’s hoping we’ll have those panels in place in the next few weeks,” Williams said.

The bridge and trail project is priced at $11 million. City officials have said taxpayers will not pay extra for all these problems. The design firm, contractor and several subcontractors are still discussing how those costs will be absorbed, Williams said.

Worth the wait

“People should know that once the bridge is done, it will definitely be safe,” Williams said. “It will be a bridge that will be appreciated in the Triangle for a long time to come.”

Supporters of the project say the bridge will be popular with south Durham folks who commute to work or to campus by bike. Residents of nearby neighborhoods will enjoy the novel option to visit Southpoint – to buy a book or catch a movie – unencumbered by their automobiles.

“On a nice weekend you’ll see just hundreds of people, whether you’re walking or biking, because it connects so many different neighborhoods in Durham,” said Erik Landfried, incoming chairman of the Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission.

Dennis Markatos-Soriano of Durham, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, said it will be worth the wait.

“A few months is not a big deal for us,” Markatos-Soriano said. “We all are eager to ride our bikes over it, walk over it, and push our sons in strollers over it. My main concern has always been that it should be a quality bridge when they open it – whether that’s last July or it’s before the spring.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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