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Hell & High Water

NEITHER THE MIDWESTERN WINTER NOR MISSISSIPPI RIVER SURGES WERE A MATCH FOR MASSMAN CONSTRUCTION CO., WHOSE CHAMP CLARK BRIDGE REPLACEMENT PROJECT TOOK HOME THE 2021 BUILD AMERICA GRAND AWARD

Since 1928, the Champ Clark Bridge had enabled travel and commerce, linking Missouri and Illinois via Highway 54, but after a century of wear and tear, says T.J. Colombatto, “the old truss bridge was beyond its useful function — and structurally deficient.”

courtesy of massman constructionMassman erects the first pair of steel girders on the project utilizing Manitowoc 7000 Ringer and 2250 cranes. PHOTO COURTESY OF MASSMAN CONSTRUCTION CO.

Colombatto, project manager for Massman Construction Company, ran point on the design-build operation, which saw Massman partner successfully with dual owners — the Missouri and Illinois Departments of Transportation — along with design firm HNTB, for a bridge that came in ahead of schedule, under budget and with a host of award nods.

Some, like the Build America Design-Build Civil category, came as less of a surprise, says Colombatto, but the Grand?

“That was pleasantly surprising,” he says. The project included demolition of the aging span and a host of upgrades, “new approaches, including raising the Illinois approach above the flood line and improving the intersection on the west side of the bridge,” Colombatto says.

For a bridge, the Champ Clark isn’t glamorous, he notes. And nor were the circumstances in which it was built. Weather in this part of the country is not particularly forgiving. Ice comes from above in gusty gales, from below in treacherous sheets that move on the flow of the mighty Mississippi River. And sometimes, its oft-murky waters rise.

“It was expected to some degree, but we did run into some flooding events, one of them being the third highest in history,” he says calmly, but with a chuckle that’s telling. “It forced us to move our material and equipment out of our storage yard to another piece of property at higher elevation.”

Though there was a scare on the Illinois side amid the rising waters — the team nearly rethought some of its rebuild plans for the flood-protection levees and the bridge’s on ramp — but cool heads prevailed, and it worked out. “Overall, there weren’t really any unexpected challenges. It was mostly smooth sailing.”

Due largely in part to the partnerships, he speculates, and on a job that was the first design-build of its kind.

“To be able to make a design-build process for a river crossing like this was unique in that it allowed us to produce something that fit our strengths as a company. This not only contributed to getting the job but building it efficiently with partner HNTB’s economical design.

“[The Missouri DOT] team was great to work with, too,” he says, noting Massman’s Marvin M. Black Award for Partnering Excellence. “They really understood the designbuild process and their role in it. Much of our success on this project was due to how their teams and ours meshed. All the parties were working toward what was best for the project.”

Ahead of schedule and under budget definitely falls under that category. Colombatto attributes that success to the partnership, as well.

structural steel completed

With structural steel completed, Massman prepares to begin the next phase of construction. PHOTO COURTESY OF MASSMAN CONSTRUCTION CO.

“And hard work and planning,” he chuckles, but notes that one of the standout successes on the build — in particular where budget was concerned — was the virtual absence of change orders. Massman’s contract, says Colombatto, was fixed price, but as the application noted, the lowest bid wasn’t the one that won the job. Massman’s was the best value.

“I don’t think it’d be uncommon to have change orders between 5-10% of the contract budget on a project of this size,” Colombatto speculates.

But the Champ Clark Mississippi River Bridge replacement came in at 0.1%.

“Small dollars,” says Colombatto, impressive in hindsight, considering the challenging work they had in overcoming some of the flood-related challenges, even if they weren’t unique.

What was, though, were the precast deck panels, which helped builders expedite. These were planned from the beginning, “as we knew we’d likely be facing winter conditions when we’d be starting deck construction. This move allowed us to move through the cold season without delays.”

It’s a big bridge, he notes. “Plate girders aren’t unique but using full-width deck panels — these were as wide as the bridge and built in nine-foot sections to set on the girders — it’s a design that hasn’t been used that often, and definitely not on a bridge of this size. It was the first time it’s been used on a Mississippi River crossing with plate girders.”

Even so, he admits, neither he nor his colleagues expected to hear Massman’s name as the Build America Awards ceremony headed toward its close.

“It was an efficient, economical bridge,” he relents, but it wasn’t an arch or a cablestay, bridges that most people find aesthetically pleasing. “From that point, I didn’t expect this one to get a lot of PR.”

If you step back and think about it, though, the possibilities become clearer.

“It’s a bridge across the Mississippi — and there aren’t many of this magnitude — but I still think the biggest thing was how well the team worked together. It was a great time. Anyplace where an issue came up, everyone was about one thing: how we were going to solve it and meet team goals. It was the universal focus the entire time: what’s best for the project, how can we meet these goals in a way that is the best for all parties.”

It was an ideology that fed the solutions from beginning to end. But even so, when the Grand Award announcement came, there was a stunned moment as the team locked eyes and caught up.

“There were a lot of projects, incredible projects, that won in other categories,” he says, trailing off. Even now, he sounds far away and back in the moment, reliving the surprise.

“It was a good day,” he says. “We were very happy.”

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