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Partnership making progress on small bridge replacement

See below for more information on the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project

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October 31, 2016

 An article about the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project was recently published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The staff at Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners is getting a daily look at the challenges faced by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation as it tries to replace 588 small bridges in three years.

Finishing its second construction season, Plenary Walsh recently reopened its 100th bridge and has about 75 more awaiting completion, said Edward Dice, head of delivery for the partnership. The group entered into an $899 million public-private partnership with PennDOT that requires it to not only replace the bridges but maintain them for 25 years, the first partnership of its kind in the United States.

Mr. Dice said the group has hit some rough spots obtaining all of the approvals and coordinating construction with utilities, the communities and other PennDOT projects, but it remains on schedule to finish all of the bridges by early 2018. Over the life of the project, he said, the partnership will deal with more than 60,000 different elements of work, “a lot of moving parts.”

“What we’re finding is, once we get the word to go ahead … everything is going smoothly,” he said last week. “Where we’ve run into more issues is getting to that point.”
For example, each bridge might have six to eight utility companies whose lines are carried across the bridge. Throw in the environmental approvals needed with each project and the odd occasion where construction might disturb a rare species and it’s easy to see that there is more involved with replacing a bridge than imbedding supports and pouring concrete.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you are getting into until you get there,” Mr. Dice said. “Doing the amount of bridges we’re doing is more difficult than doing one large bridge because each one has its own list of approvals.

“The majority of the coordination comes before construction. We have to be very ready before we put anything into the ground.”

In addition, with construction booming for PennDOT and the partnership as a result of the 2013 state transportation funding bill, finding construction crews has been difficult and pre-cast concrete suppliers are working 24 hours a day to meet demand. Plenary Walsh has had to bring in some of its own construction workers because subcontractors are unavailable. 

To keep construction moving, Mr. Dice said, the partnership recently reached an agreement with PennDOT to allow construction to continue through the winter on some projects that don’t interfere with school bus travel or other community activities.

The goal of the project is for the private group to replace the worst small, deteriorated bridges across the state using largely interchangeable components such as pre-cast concrete beams. Many of the bridges can be replaced in 75 days or less once construction begins.

“These aren’t complicated projects in many ways,” Mr. Dice said. “It’s cookie-cutter stuff really.”

In O’Hara, crews are in the process of replacing a 52-foot box beam bridge on Saxonburg Boulevard that was built in 1955 and carries 9,417 vehicles a day across Little Pine Creek. Work began Sept. 28 and should be finished by Nov. 22, said project coordinator Kari Balogh.

Ms. Balogh said it took the 16-member construction crew about five hours to place the five pre-cast concrete beams that form the main support for the bridge, an example of the economies of scale from doing a large number of similar bridges. Crews will install a polyester polymer overlay on the concrete surface when warm weather returns next year that is expected to extend its life to at least 25 years.

Plenary Walsh is the umbrella funding firm for the partnership while construction is handled by joint venture Walsh Granite Construction and design by HDR Engineering. Mr. Dice said one benefit of the project is the team is using 12 innovative construction concepts new to Pennsylvania, including a polyester overlay. Overall, each bridge is designed to last 100 years.

“What’s unique about this [public-private partnership] is we maintain the bridges for 25 years,” Mr. Dice said. “One of the things that does is ensure we build a quality bridge because we have to take care of it.” 

Michael Bonini, head of PennDOT’s public-private partnership office, said the agency is satisfied that Plenary Walsh remains on schedule to finish construction by early 2018. He’s not concerned that less than half of the bridges are finished with only 18 months to go.

“I think we fully anticipated a learning curve that they are getting through,” he said. “They are learning the intricacies our districts go through on a daily basis to complete a project.”

So far, the partnership has been paid $84.5 million — $15 million to start the project; $65.9 million for construction; $3.3 million based on the number of bridges open to traffic; and about $271,000 for change orders.

Mr. Dice said some of the 250 employees have been working for months on clearances for all of the remaining bridges.

“With construction, it’s always a challenge up until the last day … We still have challenges ahead of us. It’s an exciting time.”

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