Design-build method accelerates bridge-building process on Coast

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Published: December 24,2007

Two lanes are open on the new U.S. 90 bridges on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with final completion expected within the next few months. With the urgency to replace the bridges destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, thus re-connecting the three coastal counties, the design-build method has played a critical role in the process.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) was granted authority for this type of construction by the Legislature during the 2004 session. Southern Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown credits MDOT executive director Butch Brown with going after this method for the department before anyone knew a devastating storm was headed Mississippi’s way.

“He thought we should build faster. MDOT had been studying this method,” he said. “We got the authority to use it and little did we know how important it would be to have it and important that our chief engineer was from the bridge division.”

Brown said it was fortuitous having the authority in place and having bridge engineer Harry Lee James appointed chief engineer months before Katrina struck the Coast. After the destruction of the Bay St. Louis and the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridges, the need to replace them as quickly as possible was clear. Brown and James said the design-build method is definitely faster than conventional construction although it is not cheaper.

“Normally, the design process is a discovery process. The environmental process comes before designing begins, and then there are buying rights of way and relocating utilities. We didn’t have any of that on these bridges,” he said. “With design-build, you don’t get a second chance because you design as you go.”

The commissioner and chief engineer James are satisfied with the way the process is working for construction of the bridges.

“It’s worked extremely well,” Brown said. “To build bridges of this magnitude and in this short of time — it went better than I dreamed it would. The method works well in emergencies like this. There are instances where design-build is a necessity.”

He said MDOT wanted the best design for the structures and turned to URS Engineers because it has experience all over the country. The department also worked closely with the Federal Highway Administration.

“I re-learned that you want some real experts helping you in cases like this,” Brown said.

With this method, risks are transferred to the contractors at a much earlier stage, James said, and they were free to pick the construction milestones.

“The key goes back to time,” he said. “We can never build anything cheaper than we can do it in today’s dollars. In a non-Katrina environment, we would see design-build be very competitive, and the two methods would be neck and neck in cost.”

Kelly Castleberry, project engineer for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge, feels the increased construction costs even out when the costs of not having the bridges are factored in.

“It’s important to remember the inconvenience to the communities, the money lost by businesses, the additional fuel needed for the extra driving and the increased gasoline costs,” he said. “What these bridges mean to the economy of the communities and individuals more than offsets the extra cost of this method.”

He is not finding the process difficult, noting there are no challenges, just opportunities on the project he oversees. “Everything has gone smoothly and continues to go according to plan,” he added.

James said the method has served the communities and MDOT well and greatly hastened the bridge building. The Bay St. Louis Bridge was close to 50% complete when the first two lanes were opened, and final completion will come toward the end of January. The Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge was 80% complete when two lanes were opened last month, and completion is expected in mid May.

“We had a refined process and it worked,” he said. “All it takes is money and good contractors with good working relationships.”

The bid for the Bay St. Louis Bridge was awarded to the team of Granite Archer Western, three companies who came together to obtain bonding for a project of this size. The cost is $266 million for the high rise with four lanes, emergency lanes and a 12-foot pedestrian lane.

The new Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge is located 150 feet south of the old bridge and is 95 feet high at its peak. All remains of the destroyed bridge will be removed to two feet below the bay’s elevation or mud line. Contractors are GC Constructors, a joint venture composed of three firms — Massman Construction Company of Kansas City, Mo., Kiewit Southern Company of Peachtree City, Ga., and Traylor Brothers Inc. of Evansville, Ill. The project cost is $338.6 million.

Brown and James sid the design-build method will be used again.

“We’re satisfied with the way it’s worked. It’s a wonderful tool in our tool kit. There will be other opportunities but design-build has a narrow spectrum,” Brown said. “We won’t use it ordinarily because we normally design and plan way out in advance.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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