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'Don't look down' is mantra of Peace Bridge workers

The first things Rob Hetzell looked for while climbing the torn-up Peace Bridge late Tuesday night were the mid-span flags marking the U.S.-Canada boundary.

They fluttered only gently in the breeze. That was just fine with him.

“The temperature is not the issue so much as the wind,” Hetzell said around 11 p.m. “And it’s always so much windier up here.”

For the American Bridge Co. manager overseeing the three-year, $100 million project rebuilding the Peace Bridge deck, the light winds signaled a relatively easy night for his crews. Even at a crisp 42 degrees, at least on this night the approximately 100 ironworkers and laborers toiling on the international span would avoid the bone-chilling temperatures and penetrating winds often present on the winter job.

Mark Debo of Eden, who for 35 years has worked on high steel throughout New York State with Ironworkers Local 6, knows all too well about tough nights on the Peace Bridge.

It can be cold. It can snow. It can rain.

But it’s the wind. Always the wind.

“It’s a wind tunnel,” he said. “They say we’ve had a mild winter. But up there, the wind comes right through.”

Workers walk on the safety platform beneath the Peace Bridge as heavy fog enshrouds the bridge. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Then there are the roiling waters of the Niagara River, at some points 100 feet below. The men on the bridge constantly test and retest each others’ safety harnesses. And while a temporary platform, built by SafeSpan Co. of Tonawanda, beneath the exposed skeleton provides a place to reach upward and catch debris, the river below can prove mesmerizing.

Workers like Jeremy French of Lake View have learned a few things over more than 20 years on the job with Laborers Local 210.

“You don’t look down,” he said. “You look forward.”

More cost, fewer delays

For construction experts like Debo and French, it’s another night on the Peace Bridge job – the most extensive since its completion 90 years ago. Their assignment from the Peace Bridge Authority is to tear out and replace the original roadway and its base, which remarkably has been in place since 1927.

But the Peace Bridge carries about 15,000 vehicles every day on the northern border’s second busiest crossing. That makes this no ordinary job. Engineers from the authority, Parsons Transportation and American Bridge had to devise a way to keep international commerce flowing while tackling a reconstruction mission that is challenging in itself.

And since plans to build a new companion bridge that were under discussion for more than two decades finally died in 2011, the Peace Bridge Authority was forced to concentrate on what it has always had.

As a result, the team devised a plan that includes:

• Addressing one lane at a time on the three-lane bridge over three years to maintain traffic flow as best as possible.

• Working only in the winter months, leaving all three lanes open during the peak summer months when there is twice as much traffic.

• Alternating traffic flow over only one lane from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. each work night, allowing delivery trucks and cranes in a second lane access to the lane under construction.

• Expanding the span’s width by more than 3 feet, providing for wider sidewalks on the Lake Erie side and even a semi-circular observation deck overlooking the lake where a line on a plaque marks the precise border between the two countries.

• Replacing the original deck with new galvanized mesh over which workers will begin pouring concrete in the warmer weather forecast for this week.

• Installing new and lighter steel railings along with historic lighting on both sides of the bridge.

Workers weld steel grating to the frame of the Peace Bridge as part of a $100 million project designed to extend the span's life another 75 years. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

This year’s phase is slated for completion and reopening to three lanes of traffic on May 15. The entire project will finish in August 2019, and will serve travelers between the two countries for the next 75 years.

The staggered, winter work schedule and complete reconstruction have added millions to the project, authority officials say, but also have ensured current traffic flow and a long life.

“It’s certainly more expensive, but the value is in lighter weight and longer life,” said Thomas A. Boyle, the authority’s chief operating officer, addressing the complete tear down and reconstruction approach.

“The authority could have just redecked and get back in service,” he added. “But we saw an opportunity that happens just once in a very long time, and the added aesthetic features really enhance the bridge.”

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, explained that previous plans had called for redecking after construction of a companion span. Traffic would flow over the new bridge during the redecking.

But that option was removed when plans for a new bridge ended.

“For almost 20 years, the idea was that a new bridge would be built and then we would work on the old bridge. It would be much cheaper, easier and quicker,” Rienas said. “It really is a testament to Parsons and others to come up with a plan for a project of this magnitude with minimal traffic impact. A lot of people said it could not be done.”

Two sets of workers

So far, he said, the wintertime approach has worked. While through traffic between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. faces short, alternating delays on one lane, other problems proved minimal.

U.S. and Canadian border agencies also approved security clearances for workers in the sort of international zone between inspection booths.

American Bridge addresses the situation by employing Canadians through its Canadian subsidiary on the Ontario side of the bridge and American workers on the New York side.

Meanwhile, the perception of traffic problems remains on the Peace Bridge, Rienas added. But delays mostly stem from customs inspections. Traffic on the Peace Bridge constitutes only one-fourth of daily totals on the Grand Island bridges, and one-tenth of the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River.

The authority also finds validation in its years of intense maintenance. The original deck and superstructure has survived nine decades, they say, because of major efforts financed by the steady stream of toll revenue unavailable to bridges sponsored by the state Department of Transportation and localities.

“The Peace Bridge Authority has one asset and our focus is here,” Rienas said. “DOT might have 10,000 bridges and their focus is scattered.”

Workers face the peril of redecking the Peace Bridge while keeping one lane of traffic open at night. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Boyle added that the authority long ago substituted a molasses-based de-icer for salt, further avoiding a common problem of harsh northern climates.

“You can see the difference between a 90-year-old system maintained by us and other bridges,” he said.

In addition, the authority replaced much of its concrete railing with lighter steel in the 1960s. Rienas said the move reduced weight strain as the bridge made the transition from early Model A cars to heavy truck traffic. He thinks the success so far reflects the right decision.

“This is why we’re paying millions more for winter construction,” Rienas said. “We recognized that anything else would have an impact on our bi-national economy. This approach has basically no impact.”

Bouncing is good

Back on the bridge Tuesday night, truckers were ferrying trailer loads of new mesh grid to lay over the original steel girders. A small crane purchased exclusively to fit on the tight approach lane lifted the grids into place.

But huge rigs still rumbled across the bridge, sometimes just clearing the crane and shaking the structure to what seemed like its core.

General Foreman Bill Friend of Brant observed that the shaking is good. It means the span’s expansion joints – which absorb vibration – are working as they should.

“If it’s not bouncing, that’s when you should be concerned,” the 20-year veteran said.

Friend watched as his crews welded shear studs into the superstructure, holding the grids in place in anticipation of the concrete to come.

Welding sparks flew into the cold night and dropped toward the river below.

Back in 1926-27, an earlier generation of workers hoisted massive steel girders into place as they constructed the Peace Bridge. For the most part, those girders survive. Friend pointed to a huge beam spilling over from the bridge’s center lane – the same lane originally designed for trolley traffic.

Rust, rot and deterioration have caused crews to replace some of the original steel, he said. But it remains intact for the most part – a testament to the work of 90 years ago.

“We anticipated rust and rot, and so there are a lot of contingencies in the bidding documents,” said Boyle of the Peace Bridge Authority. “But the amount of problems we did not anticipate have been negligible.”

Workers like Debo and French seem to appreciate their assignment. They recognize the importance of the bridge, the need to keep traffic flowing and their own roles.

Debo has worked in New York City, on the new University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and lots of other big projects, too. At 57, he is looking forward to retiring.

Despite the cold and wind, he seems to relish this assignment.

“I’m coming to the end of my career, so it’s fitting that I be here for this,” Debo said. “It’s awesome.”

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