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Secrets of Successful Bridge Projects

Motorists and pedestrians use roadway bridges every day, and rarely give them much thought. Indeed, all bridges look pretty much the same when you’re crossing them at speed. And even for us in the construction management business, lots of these assignments, such as grade separations, can seem pretty similar when they’re first handed to us.

Until we run into issues.

This is what’s made me realize that, no matter how experienced you are, there’s always room to learn. No two bridges are the same. To illustrate my point, let me cite two projects I recently worked on.

Glen Helen makes the grade

Grade separations are common. I’ve worked on lots of them. For the Glen Helen grade separation project, the assignment seemed straightforward enough: Raise a roadway over two railroad lines. But this one had a unique angle: acute angles, to be specific, in the MSE (mechanically stabilized embankment) wall abutment.

The requisite reinforcing straps simply couldn’t stretch to the full length required by the design. So we had to turn to the design team, who accommodated us by devising tie-downs to hold the corners and prevent movement. Turns out you can count the bridges in the region that use this solution on one hand. Routine? Hardly.

Greenspot in the spotlight

Next was the Greenspot Road bridge project for the City of Highland. The original 100-year-old bridge spanning the Santa Ana River was so narrow, it could only handle traffic in a single direction at a time. A new concrete post-tension bridge was built to handle vehicles and pedestrians—with room for even more lanes, and utility service, in the future.

The classic old bridge was left standing, and is now devoted solely to pedestrian traffic. (The new bridge borrows design elements from the old one, creating a beautiful visual harmony.) But its retrofit was far from simple.

Cleaning the old bridge required removing lead paint. Removing lead paint required draping the bridge. Draping the bridge increased the wind load. So we could only drape the bridge in quadrants as we went. And that’s not to mention the condition of the as-builts. The bottom line: This took lots of hard work to make the project go smoothly.

So what bridges the bridges?

What are the common links here? Each project was beset by challenges. That’s fine with me. I’ve always believed that you don’t learn anything until you have a problem.

But what might not be immediately clear was the team effort required for each. As luck would have it, I was brought in late on both projects, so I extend hearty kudos to those who paved the way, both literally and figuratively, for me before my arrival.

Trust is another commonality. If you can gain the client’s trust—if you can resolve an issue without an “I told you so” and prove that you’re looking out for their best interests—you can focus on delivery and not just dollars. Every bridge project will have issues. But if you can build that bond with the client, you’ve built the best bridge of all.

Do you agree? Do you have a bridge battle story you’d like to share? Please chime in!



Carole Sanders, PE, QSD

Dubbed “The Queen of the SR-210” by the San Bernardino Sun, Carole specializes in the freeways and bridges that keep the Southland connected. With nearly three decades of experience, she’s a veteran of both the public and private sectors. She’s won numerous awards throughout her career, including Resident Engineer of the Year from Caltrans. She was also appointed to the Engineering Advisory Board at the University of California at Riverside, Bourn School of Engineering, to create and develop their School of Civil Engineering.

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