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How Atlanta can speed up I-85 repairs

In the days after a spectacular tanker truck fire collapsed a busy San Francisco Bay area interchange overpass, the region braced for a traffic nightmare that California officials estimated could last months.

Then a tall, brash road builder with a record of working fast stepped in with a bold plan. Eight days after the 2007 bridge collapse, C.C. Myers told the world he would beat the state-set completion deadline of 50 days — promising to have the road reopened in half that time.

Just 17 days later, traffic rolled across the I-580 overpass — a major artery for the Bay Bridge. The triumph offered relief to thousands of commuters, cemented Myers’ legend and gave state officials a significant public relations win.

Now, as Atlanta faces a similar crisis after a massive fire Thursday collapsed a stretch of I-85 that carries 250,000 vehicles a day, Georgia Department of Transportation officials, too, are making dire estimates of several months before the roadway will reopen.

But a question hangs over the emergency repair: Can officials take action to speed up the repairs, or will Atlanta motorists be tormented for a prolonged period with one of its major arteries severed? Georgia transportation officials planned to discuss the timetable and other details of the repair effort at a news conference Tuesday morning. They declined to comment until then.

“You’ve got to get everybody on the same ship,” Myers recalled last week. “When you do that, it’s amazing how fast you can get something done. Get the bureaucrats and the other (stuff) out of the road and go.”

The experiences of California and other states offer examples of how obstacles can be overcome to beat deadlines and reopen critical interstate bridges after debilitating fires or disasters.

Incentives boost the cost, speed completion

In Alabama, for example, state transportation officials faced a pair of interstate bridge failures within a two-year period at the state’s busiest interchange in Birmingham. In 2002, a tanker trunk ignited and destroyed a 289-foot stretch of I-65 near downtown, so it had to be demolished and rebuilt. The bridge re-opened 52 days after the crash and contractors finished more than 50 days ahead of schedule.

Two years later, a tanker truck travelling along I-20 near the same interchange crashed and caught fire. It destroyed a 413-foot overpass that had to be torn down and rebuilt. Within two hours after the accident, the state determined the bridge could not be saved. Demolition started roughly an hour after that.

To speed up reconstruction, state officials expedited design and bid processes.

“We just made ourselves available to make everything happen in an expedited manner without compromising any of our quality control,” said Tim Colquett, the Alabama Department of Transportation’s state bridge engineer.

The state also incentivized the lead contractor,the joint venture of Brasfield & Gorrie and The Morris Group,to work urgently by offering a bonus if they beat the completion deadline and penalties for missing it. They worked around the clock, seven days a week until the bridge was complete. It reopened 45 days after the October 2004 crash — 28 days ahead of the deadline set by the state. The state paid a $1.35 million bonus to the contractor — $50,000 for each day the contractor beat the deadline.

“It’s a lot, but you have to take into account the cost to the traveling public,” said Tony Harris, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Transportation. “There’s a value in that rapid completion because the traveling public, the commuters and interstate commerce — they all have a real cost of detouring around a location like that.”

In California, Myers built his reputation by swooping into a crisis and working around the clock until a road was fixed. One editorial cartoonist joked that if God had Myers as his subcontractor during creation the job would have been finished in three days.

He said he got the first incentive bonus in 1989 that Caltrans — the state’s transportation agency — ever issued. The state paid him an extra $1 million for fixing a pair of collapsed highway bridges just 45 days after the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked Northern California.

In 1994, the Northridge earthquake famously flattened a busy stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. Transportation officials said it would take 12 to 18 months to rebuild, but then the governor set a 140-day deadline. Myers promised to get it done quicker than that. He finished in 66 days, beating the governor’s demand by 74 days, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story about Myers career.

Vice President Al Gore attended a ribbon-cutting and gave Myers a framed hammer with a signed inscription that read: “Thanks for rebuilding the bridge and for helping rebuild America’s trust in government.”

The state gave him a $14.8 million bonus for completing the work so far ahead of schedule, the Chronicle reported. But Myers estimates $10 million of the bonus covered extra costs associated with doing the work so fast. For example, he paid $125,000 to rent a train to haul steel across the country to make sure it got there on time.

“You’ve always got a risk,” Myers said. “I’ve always been a risk taker….There are things you have to do and sometimes that costs you more money.”

He also faced a risk if he didn’t meet the deadline. While the bonus was the incentive, in these kind of projects contractors face penalties if they don’t meet deadlines.

“What is the benefit for the people?”

Work on the MacArthur Maze interchange in 2007 began almost immediately after the tanker fire melted and collapsed the overpass. Three freeways come together at the interchange in what is a major entrance to the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland to San Francisco. Officials knew they were facing a traffic nightmare that needed a quick response.

“You’ve got to react quickly and got to give the public confidence that somebody is in charge and that the problem is being addressed,” said Will Kempton, Caltrans director at the time.

The state’s emergency procedures kicked in. The normal permitting and environmental review process was suspended. The state sped up the bid process and inspections and promised incentives.

Within a week of the collapse, the state hired Myers. Because steel plates for the interchange had to get shipped from Pennsylvania to a steel fabricator in Arizona, the state sent inspectors to speed up the process. Transportation officials even enlisted the California Highway Patrol when a hiccup arose with the steel transportation.

“It was a great example of how government can work to react,” Kempton said. “It’s probably when state departments of transportation shine the most is when there is an emergency.”

The state put a strong incentive to work quickly. The contract offered a $200,000 a day bonus — capped at $5 million — for each day he finished in advance of the 50-day deadline. The state also placed a $200,000 a day penalty for each day he missed the deadline.

Myers low-balled the bid at $876,075 in a bet that he could finish the project well in advance of the state deadline. He collected the full $5 million bonus.

He said he doesn’t know specifics about Georgia’s project, but argued that how transportation officials here arrange the bid structure will impact the project timeline.

“You have to get bonus money,” he said. “You have to have incentives to drive people to get it done for the benefit of the people. That’s what I’ve always looked at. What is the benefit for the people?”

Georgia transportation officials seem to grasp the urgency of the task ahead. GDOT commissioner Russell R. McMurry said bridge inspectors were at work before the fire was extinguished last Thursday night, and by Friday they’d determined that about 350 feet of bridge in both northbound and southbound lanes of I-85 would have to be replaced. GDOT hired C.W. Mathews Contracting Co. of Marietta to begin demolition, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would send $10 million in emergency relief dollars to assist with cleanup and initial repairs.

-Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jeremy Redmon contributed to this story.

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