Emergency I–65 Bridge Replacement
From Ashes, a Phoenix Flies Up
Inducted in 2003
If our discipline had a mythology, recounting the exploits of bold engineers in daunting scenes, this project might be one for the books. It has certainly been discussed around the water cooler in engineering offices statewide. For when has a major interstate bridge in the heart of a big city been removed, improved, and rebuilt in only 37 days? Never in Alabama, until winter 2002, when a fiery crash at Birmingham’s “Malfunction Junction” touched off a record-setting engineering effort.
“Malfunction Junction” is a local name for the braided interchange of Interstates 65 and 20/59. On January 5, a loaded gasoline tanker heading north on I-65 slammed into a pier supporting southbound lanes directly overhead. The raging of the inevitable fire compromised the bridge’s steel girders. The melted metal sagged eight feet, although the bridge did not collapse. Later, it was found to be expertly made, fighting the demolition crew all the way down.
Within two days of the disaster, affected traffic was detoured to a temporary state route. Rebuilding began January 21. The Morris Group and Brasfield & Gorrie had submitted the winning bid as a joint venture. Equal responsibilities were assigned these Birmingham businesses in terms of management, personnel, and equipment. Their contract allowed 90 days to finish. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) had completed its design for a new three-span bridge, 20 feet longer than before with added lanes in both directions. The plan specified pretensioned/prestressed concrete for 31 new bridge girders, which could be cast and delivered in less time than it would take to procure materials for steel girders. Precast concrete was ALDOT’s most realistic option.
Sherman Prestressed Concrete of Pelham supplied it, persuading ALDOT to modify its design in favor of bulb tee girders over AASHTO girders. Sherman’s greater capacity to produce bulb tee girders would ensure quick delivery. The firm started work two days after receiving a contract, its computing system frequently swapping data with ALDOT’s to perfect the modified design.
A further design decision was to use modified BT 54 bulb tee girders in the bridge span. These are two inches larger than the standard, in every dimension except height. Their 44-inch top flanges and 28-inch bottom flanges provide extra stability during placement (26-inch top and 26-inch bottom flanges are standard).
Due in part to mild weather, the new bridge was completed in just 36 days — an unprecedented seven weeks before deadline. One day later, it was opened to I-65 traffic — typically 100,000 vehicles travel daily through Birmingham. The two contractors received an incentive of $25,000 for each day shaved from ALDOT’s schedule. It was the largest incentive payment ever disbursed by ALDOT — $1.325 million — yet the state paid the joint venture almost $400,000 less than the next lowest bid sought.
The pace of construction meant addressing various aspects of the project concurrently. An average of sixty men and women worked at the site each day. The extraordinary goal elicited extraordinary procedures; long days and weekend watches became common. The degree to which engineers pulled together toward success was perhaps uncommon. Intense cooperation between ALDOT designers, the precaster, and the two contractors was the strongest factor in speedy restoration of the bridge. Almost as significant, the team practiced, first of all, an informed and thorough thinking-out of all issues, enabling the rapid response that will surely inspire when future emergencies confront engineers.
Opening the bridge on February 26, Governor Don Siegelman gratefully praised its builders. The Engineering Hall of Fame gladly echoes his commendation of the expertise and efficiency of dedicated