Bridge project a test in physics, patience |

Bridge project a test in physics, patience

Tamara Miller
NWS RedCliff Bridge Work2 BH 4-8 Vail Daily/Bret Hartman The Red Cliff bridge is about 200 feet above canyon floor.

A lot could go wrong with a $3.6 million bridge repair project that has a major Eagle County highway closed for three months, hundreds of cars routed through a tiny mountain town and construction crews working more than 200 feet above the ground with nothing but some metal scaffolding to stand on.

But so far, the biggest challenge Pete Lombardi has had to deal with since repairs to the Red Cliff Arch Bridge began last month is cleaning up after the antics of a few frustrated residents.

“A couple of Port-a-Potties got pushed over,” said Lombardi, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s project manager for the bridge repair work. “One went over a cliff… we picked up after it.”

Fixing a 60-year-old steel arch bridge that takes U.S. Highway 24 across a canyon looks plenty complex – and it is. But with an experienced contractor, some cooperation from the Colorado State Patrol – not to mention the patience of most local residents – the project is coming along just fine, Lombardi said.

“Little complications always come up with construction, but you just have to plan for them,” he said.

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Steve Pittel, owner of the rafting company Nova Guides, drives Highway 24 nearly every day. Compared to the delays he endured while living on the other side of Glenwood Canyon and the more heavily traveled Vail Pass, this is minor, he said.

“It’s better than I expected it to be,” he said. “It looks like they are working diligently. It will be a nice improvement, I think. We always complain about it while it’s happening, but when it’s over, we forget about it.”

Urgent repairs

The historic Red Cliff Arch Bridge is considered a vital part of the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway program. The 318-foot steel arch bridge, located above the entrance to the town of Red Cliff, traverses over the Eagle River more than 200 feet above the valley floor.

The bridge is a part of U.S. Highway 24, a windy road carved into the side of Battle Mountain. On one side, rock outcroppings hover over the highway and yellow road signs warn drivers of rock fall potential. The other side overlooks a steep gorge and portions of the White River National Forest.

Tied onto the guardrail, just outside of the town of Red Cliff, are flowers. Below, at the bottom of the gorge, are more flowers, some crosses and candles. Signs left behind explain that the memorial is for a pair of young men who died last year when the car they were riding in wandered off the road.

This is the fourth bridge replacement Lombardi has overseen. The challenges associated with this one made it particularly appealing to him.

“It’s complicated, but we have a lot of support from the (Department of Transportation) and other resources,” he said.

About 2,500 vehicles drive on Highway 24 each day; the majority are commuters from Leadville and Red Cliff. So far, the bridge is safe. But increased use, time and the weather have taken a toll.

The concrete bridge deck – literally the road that vehicles drive over – is deteriorating. Visible rust has collected along the deck. The railing that runs along both sides of the deck doesn’t comply with modern highway safety standards. Corrosion has formed on the steel structure, which supports the bridge deck.

Repair plans for the Red Cliff Bridge had been on the docket for some time, but the schedule was moved up because the damage was so severe, he said. “If we didn’t repair this now we would have to make the bridge weight-restricted,” Lombardi said, adding that semi-trucks and trailers account for about 7 percent of the daily traffic.

The bridge cost $150,000 and took about a year to build, Lombardi said. Fixing it will cost more than $3.6 million and is expected to last a few months.

A grueling task

Five construction companies submitted proposals for this project. In the end, Lawrence Construction based in Littleton, got the bid.

“There were bigger companies,” Lombardi said. “We had a lot of bids. Half were from out-of-state contractors.”

Lawrence Construction has been in the bridge construction business for more than 80 years, said Matthew Cirulli, project manager for the company.

Just setting the stage for construction took several weeks in March. Crews hung metal scaffolding from cables along the expanse of the bridge to allow workers to move freely underneath the bridge deck, Cirulli said.

But the most complicated aspect of this project isn’t the work, it’s the schedule. The bridge has been closed since April 5 and will remain closed until July 3. The closure already is impacting thousands of motorists each day. And it could have been worse.

“You’re basically sticking eight months of work into three,” he said.

The good news is that the project is moving along ahead of schedule, Cirulli said.

“We’re very proud,” he said.

These days, the structure is an elaborate construction site. Crews just finished removing the bridge deck, a complicated task in itself.

“You can’t just rip it off,” Cirulli said. ” You have to evenly take it back from the arch so one side of the bridge isn’t supporting more weight than the other side.”

Failing to do that, could have bent the steel structure, Lombardi said.

To accomplish this piecemeal process, workers used 36-inch steel circular saws to cut away portions of the deck from alternate ends of the bridge. Each portion could weigh no more than 5,000 pounds. Track excavators armed with hydraulic thumbs pulled away the cut-up portions of crumbling deck. This is proof of the deck’s deteriorating state, Lombardi said.

The bridge would tremble slightly each time a portion of deck was removed.

Soon crews will jack up the deck and install new abutments. The new deck will be three feet wider on each side to accommodate a new railing that meets highway standards, yet still have enough space for the old railing to run along the edge. Because of the bridge’s historical status, the bridge must look the same as it did before, Cirulli said.

The bridge’s signature green structure will get a new coat of paint. Because the original paint contains lead, a specialized crew must enclose the structure before beginning work. Using a negative vacuum pressure and a filter, workers will sandblast the paint off. The paint containing lead will be fed into the filter and disposed of at a hazardous waste facility, Lombardi said.

Impact on town, businesses

Town meetings held months in advance allowed residents and local business owners to voice their concerns about the project, which would close the bridge for 90 days and re-route most traffic to U.S. Highway 91 from Copper Mountain.

Some were concerned that the closure would thwart potential business to town, which collected only about $9,000 in sales tax revenues in 2002. Signs along the highway remind motorists that all local businesses remain open.

So far Mango’s, Red Cliff’s sole restaurant, is holding steady, said Joe Bales.

“It’s not more, it’s not less,” he said. “Any drop off, I think, is just more the season. The weather, lately, has been hurting us. But when it’s sunny days, we’re busy.”

Others feared the closure would increase traffic, particularly trucker traffic, over the town’s already ailing streets.

The Colorado State Patrol is monitoring Highway 24 more closely since the project began. State troopers haven’t issued too many speeding tickets and commercial vehicle drivers are obeying the restrictions, said Sgt. Shawn Olmstead. He didn’t have any statistics on traffic tickets, yet.

Ramon Montoya, a Red Cliff Trustee and the town’s mayor-elect, noticed that traffic died down the first few days after the project began. Since then, motorists seemed to have figured out they can still go through Red Cliff.

“The wait has been 15 minutes, worst case,” Montoya said. “Most people are willing to sit it out for that amount of time.”

He fears that the delays will get worse. Crews will soon start slowing traffic along the other entrance into Red Cliff, a road that runs underneath the bridge.

Despite the inconvenience on Red Cliff residents, construction crews have included repairs to Water and High Streets in their project budget. This should offset the damage both streets will sustain from heavy construction traffic, Lombardi said.

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.

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