allegheny | Duquesne, PA Mile 138
The Nuts & Bolts: Whitaker Bridge
- Continental weathering steel prefabricated pedestrian truss bridges, with Trex decking and vinyl coated fencing; 170 feet long by 12 feet wide
- Built for GAP Use: 2010
- Total Cost: $1,630,170.05
- Engineer: AECOM
- Contractor: Lindy Paving, PJ Dick Trumbull
- Sub-contractor: Century Steel did the crane work
- Bridge Design & Fabricator: Contech
- Project Manager: Jack Paulik
Over the course of nearly four decades of trail planning, property negotiation, construction challenges, and time restraints, perhaps the most remarkable feat of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trailbuilders was the simultaneous configuration of both the Whitaker and Port Perry fly-over bridges. Both proposed bridges were within the 9-mile “Gaps in the GAP” between McKeesport and Point State Park.
While the Port Perry and Whitaker Bridge properties are nearly 2 miles apart, both bridges were built with the same goal in mind: find a cost-effective way to avoid the active Norfolk Southern and Union Railroad lines along the Monongahela riverfront and keep the trail right-of-way off heavily trafficked roads. In late 2005 and into 2006, the only alternative route that trailbuilders considered feasible was to extend the trail to reach Grant Avenue in Duquesne and then share the sidewalk until the trail intersected State Route 837. Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) Project Manager Jack Paulik, who led in the construction efforts from McKeesport to the Waterfront, details why the State Route 837 option was a poor one:
“Now, Grant Avenue is the main highway that ties the [RIDC] industrial park to the town of Duquesne. This was really bad. […] When we got to Grant Avenue, you couldn’t stay along the railroad tracks because you ran out of real estate with no options. So, the preferred option – not preferred – but the only thing that anyone could think of was, “Let’s jump up on the sidewalk on State Route 837.
The sidewalk was four feet wide, going up steep hills, with utility poles, and 837 is really a very, very high-volume traffic road, but that’s what the option was [until] reaching Commonwealth Avenue. Now, Commonwealth Avenue is located just before you get to Kennywood Park and at that point, the riders would cross 837 again and take a very steep hill down to the railroad tracks. And, this was thought to be – ‘We can do this.’ Well, I didn’t think it was a very good idea. It was very steep, very dangerous, and very costly, but was the only card on the table. So, assuming that this was done, then it would get down to […] the coke-gas pipeline. This was almost two miles of U.S. Steel property that was being acquired and would get us through a large percentage of the Steel Valley.”
The coke-gas pipeline property, acquired from U.S. Steel in 2006, became the solution that rerouted the trail away from State Route 837 and onto a safer route designated only for trail traffic. The pipeline property almost parallels State Route 837 on a flat shelf situated above the Monongahela River. The retired industrial pipeline that used to run along this flat section of the bluff was dismantled and removed by U.S. Steel as part of the property’s sale, but the elevation of the coke-gas pipeline property would prove tricky for trailbuilders as the project developed. The problem still remained on how to connect the trail section from the Riverton Bridge (which would be completed in 2008) through the Duquesne RIDC property to the coke-gas pipeline property, then continue northward towards the Waterfront segment at Homestead. The trail would need to cross over the Norfolk Southern tracks twice, at the Port Perry section and Whitaker section, and both these properties were privately owned.
Initial negotiations with the owner of the Whitaker property, Rudy Suto, became a probable solution to connect all of the pieces. The initial idea was to use an existing pedestrian bridge that crossed the Norfolk Southern rail line, which would be provided by Mr. Suto. However, after continuous negotiations with Mr. Suto deteriorated due to his unrealistic demands for river access, the ATA was forced to find different means of connection. Thanks to a good working relationship between the ATA and John Surma, CEO of the U.S. Steel Corporation and subsidiary rail companies like the Union and Transtar Railroads, Paulik gained vital access to executives at Norfolk Southern Railroad, who could help the ATA get easements for potential crossings over the tracks. This breakthrough created an alternative to connect the pipeline property at Whitaker and Port Perry.
As the project progressed into 2008, trailbuilders considered the best strategy for trail alignment for the Port Perry flyover bridge. The pipeline property is significantly higher in elevation than the trail sections running alongside the river—necessitating ramps and bridges to carry trail users up and down the substantial incline. After a small section of Union Railroad property was acquired, Paulik and his contractors arrived at the section of the Norfolk Southern Railroad where the trail had to cross active tracks and decided an elevated bridge was the best way to carry trail users safely over the tracks and up to the pipeline property. Paulik had to negotiate aerial easements for the Port Perry and Whitaker flyover bridges with both the Norfolk Southern and Union Railroads, giving the ATA and Allegheny County the right to place structures over the tracks as well as allowing them to build structural supports for both flyover bridges on railroad property. Paulik explains the cooperation involved in negotiating the easements and the individuals who contributed in making it happen:
“Now, we needed to negotiate an easement […] we’re negotiating in good faith for [Allegheny County] to cross the railroad [at Port Perry] and then also at Whitaker – so these both are kind of simultaneous. And, the railroad was- Norfolk Southern was very good and continued to meet with us. We would meet with them sometimes monthly.
The people that came into play – we had good contacts. We were dealing with their Atlanta Central Office on these negotiations and we were meeting with a guy by the name of Tom Bracey. He was a senior engineer and Dave Wyatt [System Engineer, Director of Public Projects] – those are two people that we met with very regularly on these easements. And, during these easement negotiations, we were also reviewing bridge design work. We were reviewing what kind of bridge you’re going to let us put up, how wide do they have to be, how tall do they have to be? How far from the railroad do they have to be? So, all this negotiation was going on monthly and I was the proponent of having as many review meetings as possible with my engineers, the railroad, and county people.”
These negotiations and realignments by Norfolk Southern were not cheap. Linda M. Boxx, ATA’s president, was always fundraising to keep this project alive and active. ATA had a mission!
The main problem with the easement along the Port Perry section was that there were obstacles other than the active rails that Paulik, along with hired contractor Kimball Engineers, had to avoid if they were going to make the bridgework. These obstacles included a 50-foot high wall, a clogged drainage pipe, and a fiber optic cable line that ran underground within inches from bridge footings. To address these hindrances, Pauilk and his engineers had to design new drainage piping (to avoid water runoff from the bridge overloading Norfolk Southern’s storm drains) and to raise the structure ten feet higher than originally planned, to widen the bridge width for trail users. These adjustments were costly. The Port Perry Bridge had its own major challenge. There was a 30-foot difference in elevation between the bridge and where the trail met it, and although Paulik devised a ramp from the trail to the bridge, it had to be redesigned to accommodate a hidden 18-inch gas pipe that was found directly underneath where the ramp was set to connect to the bridge. It would take close to two years of negotiation to finalize easements and bridge contracts and set a solid completion date for 2010.
The Suto property dilemma at Whitaker did make a route back over the Norfolk Southern tracks more difficult—but not impossible. A solution for a Whitaker crossing became clear when DMJM Harris/AECOM engineer Bill Collinge came forward to share a concept plan with Paulik. Collinge drew rough sketches of a flyover bridge that connected the coke-gas pipeline property over seven rail lines to end perfectly on Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority property, effectively bypassing the Suto property. The bridge itself -170’ would cross diagonally across the tracks and ramp down onto county property which would continue its way north towards the Waterfront. While the ATA (acting on behalf of Allegheny County) successfully negotiated an aerial easement for the bridge, the first major issue was the existence of too many rail lines underneath the bridge; there was no space left for the bridge supports to be placed. An additional design challenge was to make sure double-stacked freight cars had enough clearance below the deck of the bridge (meaning the bottom of the deck had to be more than 23 feet from the ground to account for the height of the freight cars). As a compromise, the Union Railroad volunteered to remove the rail line nearest to the Allegheny County property to provide adequate space for bridge supports and the ramp.
The process of building both bridges began with Bob Luffy, CEO of American Bridge Company. Luffy proposed the option of building a bridge at-cost at an American Bridge facility in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, then floating the entire structure down the Monongahela River. DMJM Harris/AECOM were hired to design the bridge and sent the finished design over to American Bridge, who priced its construction at $2 million. Paulik, who was only allotted $3.5 million for both the Whitaker and Port Perry Bridges combined, had to decline this option. A more cost-effective solution emerged from the combined efforts of DMJM Harris/AECOM engineer Bill Collinge and Linda Boxx, as Paulik explains:
“Bill Collinge came into play, he said ‘Let’s look at some other options here.’ And, Linda came back into play. I said, ‘Look, I need to look at other options. Let’s do the best value engineering.’ … So, we decided to- I talked to my engineers. I had two – I had Kimball and AECOM. Each one was designing a bridge for me. And, I said, ‘We’re going to go with prefabricated structures.’”
With the prefabricated bridges costing significantly less than the previous option (Paulik paid around $700,000 in construction costs for both bridges), Paulik and his team got to work constructing the flyover bridges. The bridge fabricator, Contech, helped Paulik and his contractors create a feasible approach where bridge pieces would be shipped from their facility in Minnesota to the worksite to be assembled. Paulik elaborates:
“We ended up with two bridges – 130-foot bridge at Port Perry and a 170-foot bridge at Whitaker. Both bridges – they are 12-foot wide inside dimensions and for the lay-down material – instead of wood – we used Trex material, which is a composite of plastic and sawdust that looks very natural, like wood, and it has a shelf life of indefinitely. So, it’s not going to rot away. And, we were very specific in designing these bridges with this material so that they’re, in theory, zero maintenance for a long, long time.
[W]e went with 12-foot width. We did that because when you create linear corridors for cyclists, 10-foot looks like 8, well, 12 looks like 10. You feel more comfortable and you don’t feel like you have to squeeze in the middle and maybe run into someone else. So, we did that. The 12’ wide connecting ramps we’re attempting to make ADA accessibility, we’re five and seven percent on the ramps because we’re an outdoor trail so we have a little latitude on grades.”
Paulik ended up with 28 individual truckloads of parts that, when assembled, formed the two continental weathering steel pedestrian truss bridges with Trex decking and vinyl coated fencing. Port Perry had two-beam landing towers, and set-in pier towers, and nine 75-foot by 12-foot ramp sections. The Whitaker Bridge had one main landing tower, three pier towers, and four 95-foot by 12-foot ramp sections. The bridges’ assembly took place in 2010, with the date to complete the project set for July 7, 2010. Two nearly catastrophic episodes occurred during bridge construction. The first began at Whitaker, where the engineers miscalculated the distance from an active track and made the bridge itself too long. In a show of good faith, the Union Railroad moved the problem track, while RTC/ATA accepted financial responsibility. The other close call happened the weekend before July 7 when Norfolk Southern volunteered two rail cars to haul the 500-ton crane provided by Century Steel. Due to a miscommunication, Norfolk Southern placed only one car at the construction site, and Paulik had to contact the rail company to fix the issue. That same evening, maintenance personnel for Norfolk Southern worked overtime to make sure the second rail car was put into place, which saved the day. Without the second car the bridge would not be ready for the proposed lift into place deadline.
Negotiations with the Union and Norfolk Southern Railroads did not end there. With July 7 fast approaching, many discussions between the ATA and the rail companies took place to analyze how best to place the pre-assembled Port Perry and Whitaker Bridges. Since the Union and Norfolk Southern rail lines needed to be operational nearly all year, bridge placement came down to a week in July designated by the rail companies as “hell week.” In the days surrounding Independence Day, most freight traffic is reduced to a minimum, giving rail companies a short time to do track maintenance without interrupting the flow of freight. The ATA had one chance to place both bridges simultaneously at Port Perry and Whitaker while the rail traffic was on hold. Increasing the challenge, the engineers and contractors putting the bridges in place only had two hours. To even secure a two hour window to construct the bridges, the trailbuilders spent countless time submitting engineering plans to the railroads and seeking approval to use Century Steel’s cranes across the rail lines. Even gaining approval was a challenge in itself. If the ATA could not put the bridges in place during those two hours, they would have to wait another year to try again.
A lot was on the line. To get the most out of their limited time, the trailbuilders on site had to operate like a well-oiled machine. Starting at 7:00 AM on July 7, while a thick fog still lay over the tracks, the Century Steel cranes were put into place and, without delay, they secured both prefabricated bridges. Paulik describes the effort it took to get the cranes ready, and the operating procedures his contractors followed to ensure the Whitaker bridge would meet the 23-foot clearance requirements:
“Well, I had my engineers, surveyors – I said, ‘You keep checking the bolt location and make sure they’re going to fit because there’s not a do-over on this.’ So, they checked everything. I said, ‘Make [sure] it’s going to work.’ And, the tolerance is two to three inches for the bolt to fit. Two of them are secure, the other two can float two or three inches, and there’s four bolts, two on both sides that have to match up. That being said, I was a bit nervous. The prefabricated bridges shipped from Minnesota only had a 2” variance to match up to the abutments.
[T]he crane is a 500-ton crane that was very expensive. They had to bring it in pieces and put it together. […] [T]hey brought it in 10 pieces to put it together because it’s so heavy to put this crane together. We had to- they called it “foul tracks.” We had to have the railroad, other than their main line – we had to have them block off four or five of those tracks so we could get this crane close enough to pick the bridge up and swing it over into place.
So, we had four or five tracks foul, we only had two tracks that they could use. So, the crane operator eventually picks this up, swings it over – they’re getting all kinds of good pictures – and puts it down. And, the engineer for the railroad needs – 23 feet and 8 inches from the track to the bottom of the bridge. If it’s under 23 feet and 8 inches, you take the bridge off.”
Once the Whitaker bridge was an assured success, the rest of the project ran smoothly. Port Perry was secured with no issue, and the trailbuilders shifted to working on the ramps once both bridges were in place on their respective piers, which were constructed earlier in May 2010.
A year later, on June 17, 2011, the ATA celebrated the successful completion of the 5-mile segment between Duquesne and Homestead. Constructing both the Port Perry and Whitaker bridges took time, enormous effort, and unprecedented cooperation from trailbuilders and allied corporations alike.
Author: Reed Hertzler