The steel pieces floating on barges in the Arkansas River at downtown North Little Rock look like “a giant Erector Set,” but by next summer they are expected to form the basket-handle arches of the new $98.4 million Broadway Bridge.
The existing bridge, nearly a century old, will close to traffic for up to six months while the new bridge is installed.
Although the old bridge was set to close in May, Paul Sharmer, vice president of operations for contractor Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Missouri, said the new goal is to close it in September, depending on weather and how fast the remaining prep work is done.
He and Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, said flooding and steel delivery delays threw off the schedule. Veritas Steel of Chicago needed more time to craft the unique arch pieces and ship them from Palatka, Florida.
Straessle said even though the exact closing date has not been determined, it’s not too soon for commuters to plan their alternate routes. Main Street Bridge is recommended, as it can “easily” handle the 25,000 cars the Broadway Bridge sees daily, he said. Another option is the Interstate 30 Bridge.
Straessle added that Little Rock and North Little Rock are looking into adjusting the timing of traffic signals to accommodate more cars coming through their downtowns.
Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, expects logistical challenges during the closure but said the arches will enhance the city’s skyline, and the bureau is looking forward to the finished product.
The steel sitting on “staging” barges to the east of the interstate serves as a reminder to drivers of the impending inconvenience.
Massman has received about three-fourths of the steel it needs, Sharmer said.
Straessle said crews are painting it white, then floating the pieces upstream and “starting to assemble what looks like a giant Erector Set over there on the east side of the bridge, in front of the ballpark.”
Sharmer said the first arch is likely be completed in a few weeks, and the public will see a “replay” — the second one going up — in August.
Massman has about 70 local hires and crews will be working “around the clock” when the existing bridge closes, he added.
They’ve already built a ramp that may have piqued the curiosity of drivers who pass it. It’s higher than the existing bridge, but will be flush with the new one, Straessle said.
That ramp, along with a second that will go up behind the Doubletree Hotel, connecting to the Arkansas River Trail and Highway 10/La Harpe Boulevard, will provide access for bicycles and pedestrians.
Hall expects the ramps to be used regularly by locals and tourists.
A third ramp will offer southbound drivers on the new bridge access to Highway 10/La Harpe Boulevard.
Straessle said constructing the ramp was part of Massman’s effort to do all it could before the bridge is closed. “When the contractor says they’re ready to go, it’s going to go. The idea is, of course, to provide enough warning for the public,” he said. The public has had plenty of notice that the bridge will be replaced; the project has been on the books since 2011.
Pieces of concrete, some as big as bowling balls, have been falling from beneath the aging structure. The bridge is on a six-month inspection cycle, but being closely watched to make sure the structure isn’t compromised. So maintenance costs outweigh the cost of a new bridge, Straessle said.
About the delay, Straessle said crews were drilling supports for the new bridge when their templates were pushed over by high water and had to be fished out of the river.
He added that Veritas didn’t deliver the steel when expected because “this is a very unique structure. The bridge — the geometry on the design of this bridge — is quite something. So it is very challenging to manufacture the steel members.”
Straessle said that when the existing bridge is demolished, subcontractor Greg Bair Trackhoe Services of Overland Park, Kansas, will use “cutting charges” on the bridge’s arch to break that into pieces that will fall into the river and be retrieved. The rest of the bridge will be jackhammered away.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental regulations do not permit debris larger than bowling-ball size to remain in the river, Straessle said.
Sharmer, the Massman VP, described work already done. Shafts about 8 feet in diameter were drilled 25 to 30 feet into the riverbed and filled with concrete. “Footing” was installed to tie those shafts together and lend support, he said.
This substructure is now being fortified, Sharmer said.
And crews are waiting for the remaining steel to arrive. The pieces will be traveling across the Greenville Bridge at U.S. Highway 82 over the Mississippi River in Lake Village. The trucks have exited I-30 at Broadway to get to the staging area, Straessle said. He added that a special permit has been required to transport wider-than-typical trailer loads.
One challenge Massman could face because the project was delayed is pouring concrete in the winter. But, Straessle said, the contractor knows what it’s doing and there are methods to overcome the difficulty.
In building the Big Rock Interchange at Interstates 430 and 630 in west Little Rock, heated blankets were used on freshly poured concrete. Above-freezing temperatures are crucial to it setting properly, Straessle explained.
Sharmer said Arkansas has relatively mild winters, and Massman feels it would be better to risk a few cold days holding up the project than risk the high water and flooding that is common in the spring and could cause longer delays.
He added that other options for pouring concrete in the winter include heating the sand or rock that goes into it or using hot water to mix it.
That is one of the many tasks to be completed after the bridge is closed.
Straessle said the public may also be able to see the center columns sticking out of the river. After the demolition, Massman will construct pier caps to place on those that will support the new arches, then pour the bridge deck and connect the ramps to it.
Sharmer said pier caps are horizontal beams the 10-foot-by-15-foot columns will support. The pier caps tie the columns together and the bridge will sit on this configuration, he said.
Straessle said that when the arches are finished, they’ll be brought over on barges, lifted by crane and set into place.
Straessle said the new bridge could be finished early and that would be welcome, but Sharmer said Massman isn’t counting on it because the six-month schedule is “very tight.”
Of the project as a whole, Sharmer said, “This is certainly unique, as all jobs are, in the fact that there is the preassembly of the arches off the bridge alignment and the significant impact of closing the bridge and replacing the bridge in the same footprint.”
He also said building the new Broadway Bridge is something workers can tell their children and grandchildren about.
Construction on the existing bridge started in 1921, and it was opened on March 14, 1923, at a cost of $971,000.