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Heavy Fabricating

Arising from the Hudson

By Nick Wright

Domestic firms fabricate steel for 100-year replacement of New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge

February 2016 - In a January 2013 article in New York magazine, one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aides reportedly referred to the Tappan Zee Bridge, a major interstate link in the northeast, as the “hold-your-breath bridge.” 

The 60-year-old crossing is a member of a dire class of American infrastructure that has outlived its intended lifespan, causing some angst among the 140,000 drivers that traverse it daily.

As it is, the drum beat has echoed louder since the Great Recession for infrastructure investment. Not only do projects create jobs, but the more immediate concern are roads and bridges that are crumbling—in some cases, literally, as we saw in Minneapolis in 2007. That spurred a rush of engineers to assess the nation’s bridges, bringing the issue to front-page headlines and deep scrutiny.

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The New NY Bridge is the largest infrastructure project in New York state history.

The takeaway: There is no shortage of bridges to fix or potholes to fill. Major dollars are flowing and work is underway. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s budget for 2016 includes $317 billion for the country’s highway system. The DOT budget increases the highway funds by an average of nearly 29 percent above 2015’s amount.

You might not see the repairs on the rusty steel truss bridge that crosses the creek on your commute. However, crucial arteries are getting attention. Just north of New York City, the Tappan Zee Bridge will soon have a replacement.

By 2018, the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge will be replaced by the New NY Bridge, parallel to the north. At 16,013 ft. long, the Tappan Zee Bridge, carrying interstates I-87 and I-287 over the Hudson River at one of its widest points, is the longest bridge in New York. It’s a huge, seven-lane link with an old steel cantilever structure that opened in 1955. 

The New NY Bridge will connect Tarrytown on the east shore to South Nyack on the west. Contractors with Tappan Zee Constructors, the firm behind the field work, have faced different challenges on either shore of the river. 

To meet each challenge, the bridge is being assembled with different methods on each shore. While a super crane named “I Lift NY” has been placing girder sections atop piles across the Hudson River at the rate of two placements a week, crews on the east shore relied on another method. A Metro-North commuter rail line runs along the Hudson River’s east bank, making the riparian working area tricky. Therefore, crews assembled girders on land, then pushed them out, over the railroad tracks, and onto the first sets of piers along a specially designed track system. That part of the assembly concluded just before Christmas 2015. About 31 miles of steel girders weighing more than 100,000 tons ultimately make up the backbone of the new twin-span bridge.

With any project of such magnitude, there is an active roster of fabricators supplying steel, both seen and unseen. FFJournal talked with some of the main steel players to get a glimpse behind the girders, and the largest infrastructure project in New York state history.

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The bridge comprises dozens of  immense girders. The longest girder will measure 78 ft.; the heaviest, 54 tons.

Stacked steel

According to the New York State Thruway Authority, which maintains the bridge, the New NY Bridge will sit on 260 million lbs. of steel, including the foundations, substructure, 419-ft. towers and rebar. 

The approach spans’ blue steel girders, fabricated by High Steel, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Hirschfeld Industries Bridge, San Angelo, Texas, are being assembled in three-girder-wide configurations for each span. ArcelorMittal USA is supplying the steel, which it began delivering in October 2014. The girders have a protective zinc primer applied during fabrication, followed by up to three coats of high-quality paint, “which shields the steel from the elements, including moisture and salt from the river’s brackish waters,” according to the New York State Thruway Authority.

HighSteel2High Steel Structures Inc., headquartered in Lancaster, Pennyslvania, is supplying 793 girders, 1,068 stringers and 2,564 crossframes using ASTM steel grades 50W and 70W. The crossframes and stringers were fabricated at the Lancaster facility while approximately 80 percent of the girders were produced at High Steel’s Williamsport location. The sheer size of these pieces has proved to be the biggest challenge, says Project Manager Ken Glidden. “It’s not unusual to get projects that have a handful of girders approaching 100 tons, but this project has dozens of these large pieces.”

To fabricate the jumbo-size beams, web plates are burned into proper camber profile then spliced together using complete penetration groove welds (CPGW). Flange plates are also spliced together using CPGW then welded to the web plates with fillet welds, a process used to join stiffeners to the girders. Holes are drilled into the webs and flanges followed by a three-coat paint process.

According to Glidden, the majority of girders weigh more than 100,000 lbs. The crossframes tip the scales at approximately 5,000 lbs. each. “Logistically, routing these large loads was difficult,” Glidden says. “Because most of the girders approach 12 ft. in depth, they had to be shipped in a horizontal position. High Transit was able to hurdle these obstacles and successfully deliver these massive loads to the customer.”

Despite the project’s aggressive schedule, “the job is running smoothly,” says Ronnie Medlock, vice president of Technical Services for High Steel. “We’re on time and assembly of our steel in the field has been going very well.”

For the main span, Quebec City-based Canam Bridges is the main contractor. That span measures 2,230 ft., comprising 10,500 tons of steel components. The longest girder it will install is 78 ft.; the heaviest, 54 tons.

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The New NY Bridge will sit on 260 million lbs. of steel, including the foundations, sub-structure, 419-ft. towers and rebar.

I Lift NY

The aptly named crane lifting girders into place deserves its own spotlight. I Lift NY’s main lifting boom is taller than a 30-story building and can lift 1,929 tons, equivalent to 12 Statues of Liberty at once, according to the New York State Thruway Authority. At 328 ft. long, the boom maneuvers 700-ton chunks of the bridge into place with ease.

Originally built in 2009, the crane was formerly known as the Left Coast Lifter because of its use in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span replacement. Its well-earned West Coast credibility landed it a similarly huge East Coast job on the Hudson.

Full circle fabrication

Dan Doyle is CFO of Brakewell Steel Fabricators, Chester, New York, another fabricator on the project. Brakewell is mainly providing ancillary and temporary steel for pile hangers, jacking beams and other miscellaneous MIG-welded steel as needed. Doyle says the biggest challenge of working on the New NY Bridge project is the expected quick turnaround.

“We worked on 2,600 pile hangers for 15 months,” he says. “We produced faster than they could install them, just kept working on them and built up a backlog. Most of the items they need faster than anyone could build them, so we do the best we can.”

Originally founded in 1969 in the Bronx, Brakewell is now located upstate, about 40 minutes from the job site. The company is known as a custom fabricator of curved stairs, Doyle says, but Brakewell is used to working with the public entities involved with the bridge. “We work with any ABC agency,” he says. “The DOT, the MTA, the Port Authority and so on.”

The New NY Bridge brings Doyle full circle in a big way, he explains. When Doyle’s father came to the U.S. from Canada, his first job was with American Bridge Co., which fabricated sections of the original Tappan Zee. (American Bridge Co. is a part of the consortium of companies making up Tappan Zee Constructors, too.)

“He worked on the original bridge and 60 years later, his son is involved in doing work for the replacement bridge. It’s personal in that way, but to be involved on any level is satisfying.”

Another company supplying fabricated steel is County Fabricators Inc., located in nearby Pleasantville, New York. It’s a smaller outfit, with about 15 employees, but the company is producing crucial weldments that a company double its size would. The company is accustomed to bridge projects in the northeast.

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Originally built in 2009, the crane is formerly known as the Left Coast Lifter because of its use in the San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span replacement.

Since 2013, County Fabricators, too, has delivered catwalks to the main span, conduit supports on the approaches, and two massive platforms. The two access platforms, each measuring 60 ft. by 70 ft., have handrails and floor gratings for workers to safely access the I Lift NY crane that has lifted sections of the new bridge into place. 

On the east shore, from where girder sections were pushed over active railroad tracks, County Fabricators’ steel was embedded throughout. CEO Kristina Benza says the company delivered girder alignment mechanisms, which are weldments that align the 12 ft. tall by 350 ft. long subassembled bridge girders. The company’s work is also embedded in the girder nose launch assembly, which is the rail-like track from which assembled girders were pushed out from the east shore.

Benza says the biggest challenge for County Fabricators is envisioning how the innumerable, disparate moving parts come together as a whole, not just for the New NY Bridge, but any major fabrication. “We tend to get purchase orders and do things chunk-wise: approach span, main span, temporary work. It can be hard to see where that’ll come together.

“We’ve done over 200 purchase orders for the new Tappan Zee bridge,” Benza continues. “One of the biggest things we pride ourselves on is understanding what our customers are trying to accomplish with what we’re fabricating. That way, we can better facilitate the fabricating process. We consider our approach more collaborative than most shops.”

As with Doyle at Brakewell Steel Fabricators, Benza says the bridge, more than anything, is an exciting project for the 11-year-old company. “I think about our kids and grandkids someday driving over the bridge. There won’t be one linear foot of that bridge that doesn’t have something fabricated from us.”

The completion of the new bridge is still a couple years out. But it represents a renewal of a crucial link in the New York State Thruway’s 570-mile system, connecting New England to the Midwest and beyond. It encompasses all U.S.-made steel and quality work from domestic fabricators designed to give it a 100-year lifespan. Until then, the Tappan Zee’s aging steel hangs on, as drivers make their way across with bated breath. FFJ

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