Bridge over the Diversion Channel nears completion

Monday, May 10, 2004

Scott City residents, and everyone who travels Interstate 55 south of Cape Girardeau on a consistent basis, have been negotiating the narrow lanes, the concrete median barriers and the orange barrels for more than two years.

The project has dragged on like a hot summer day and some have wondered why they haven't seen bigger crews working on this Diversion Channel bridge project that bottlenecks traffic every day.

The joke going around Scott City is that the workers are doing a great job -- for two men to build an entire bridge in three years is quite a remarkable feat.

The work is nearing completion, however. Missouri Department of Transportation district engineer Scott Meyer estimates the bridge will be open to four lanes of traffic as early as the end of the month, though the entire project, including the completion of the on and off ramps, may not be finished for some time after that.

Penzel Construction Company, a Jackson-based firm, has taken some heat on the project, but the numerous delays have been out of the contractor's control, say Penzel and MoDOT officials.

Phil Penzel, president of the company, said there have been times when work stopped because of flooding. But most of the work and most of the hang-ups have occurred below road level and out of the layman's view.

For instance, the workers had to dam off a section of the channel to build the bridge's footings. When the channel level reaches a certain level, workers are forced to abandon the site because the walls could collapse under the pressure. Three floods have delayed the project at least four months total. As in all construction contracts, Penzel is not penalized for days lost due to weather.

Another six months or so has been lost as the contractors dealt with abnormal below-ground conditions. Gerald Hitt, an engineer for Penzel, said the contractor always prepares for some unusual circumstances, but this project has been particularly abnormal. MoDOT has allowed several extensions, and Penzel is in no danger of paying liquidated damages for project delays.

The earth in Southeast Missouri is unpredictable. The below-surface conditions can change dramatically in a matter of feet. Within a span of 20 feet the conditions changed so much in one instance that an extra 25 meters of piling was necessary to support the bridge.

Sunken posts

In addition, the contractors have had to deal with a number of sunken posts, like telephone poles, that were driven into the ground to support a platform for the construction of the old bridge. Instead of pulling out the posts when the bridge was constructed in the 1960s, they were chopped off, creating a huge setback for the construction workers.

Meyer said there could one more delay as the construction workers compensate for a design flaw on the 3-foot connector piece that will connect both sides of the bridge. The alignment of the two sides is off slightly, but Meyer said the situation can be manipulated by moving the median barriers from one side to the other.

After that, he said, it will be pretty much ready to pour.

"It's a difficult project, technically," Meyer said. "It's seismically designed, and that makes it even harder."

Many Scott City residents don't concern themselves with the technicalities. They just want to get back to a normal daily commute.

"At times, it's a pain," said Lisa Twidwell. "Especially when people are getting off work. I come from the East Coast, where they can get a bridge across the ocean in a year."

Jennifer Cabaniss, another Scott City resident, said it usually takes her about five to 10 minutes longer to get to her job in Cape Girardeau than it used to.

"It's a pain in the butt. It's made it really hard for people in Scott City to get to work," she said.


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