Bay Bridge job a daunting task

Project: Recoating the south span of the Bay Bridge is considered one of the most complex paint jobs ever. It will take five years and $71 million.

May 30, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The job looms over the Chesapeake Bay like the Bay Bridge. In fact, it is the Bay Bridge.

The bridge's south span, sweeping 4.3 miles across the bay's choppy waters, needs a new coat of paint. A team of workmen is deep into the chore.

It's a task likely to make a weekend painter or even most professionals feel faint -- 2.5 million square feet of rusting, peeling steel to blast, clean, patch, prime and coat. And that's only the center portion of the span.

Just approaching the job each day is a challenge. "On my first day they sent me to the tall tower," recalls Joel Schleder, 30, a painter from New Jersey. "I stopped and looked around and said, `What am I doing here?' Some guys say no the first day."

The work requires boats, barges, tarps that could cover a barn, and several hundred tons of powerful equipment. And always, there's the danger of falling from precarious heights into the bay's unforgiving waters.

If that weren't enough, 10 coats of old paint on the span, including its original lead-tinged layer, make the removal part of the job a major environmental venture. Some 625 tons of paint must be blasted free in a way that won't endanger thousands of motorists who speed across the bridge daily, wildlife in the air above and water below, or the painters.

All these problems and more have combined to make recoating the bridge one of the most complex and expensive paint jobs anywhere. Begun last summer, it will take five years to finish.

During the 1950s, the south span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, as the bridge is formally known, was built for $45 million. Painting it is expected to cost a stunning $71 million. The bridge's north span, which opened in 1973, does not yet need repainting.

"There isn't another contract in the country like this one," says Gregory E. Campbell, president of the George Campbell Painting Co. of Flushing, N.Y., which is being paid $39.2 million for the bulk of the project, covering the bridge's center span. Two smaller contracts to paint each end have not been awarded.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn over the mouth of New York Bay, is about twice the size of the Bay Bridge and is costing roughly $35 million to repaint, he says. Another comparable repainting by Campbell -- the George Washington Bridge linking Manhattan and New Jersey -- is costing $32 million.

In the case of the Bay Bridge, the high price has less to do with the size of the span than with the daunting logistics of the project.Campbell's family-run business has been painting huge bridges since the 1950s, but few of the projects have been this complex and none so costly.

"Even for a job of this type," Campbell acknowledges, "the Bay Bridge is expensive."

The high cost stems in part from the price of keeping bridge traffic moving smoothly. Workers and supplies arrive by boat instead of vehicles -- a plan that keeps bridge lanes open most of the time. That raised the cost by as much as 10 percent.

"Closing a lane would have been too inconvenient," says John D. Porcari, chairman of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge. "We wanted to do this the right way, and we also wanted state-of-the-art in environmental protection."

Using state-of-the-art environmental controls added $6 million to the cost. The MTA also demanded a 10-year warranty from the painting company, which set a new and costly precedent for such projects.

Adventurous commute

From the surface of the bay, 354 feet below the top of the bridge's towers, the challenge of the job is readily apparent.

One recent morning at 7 a.m., a group of the 50-some workers on the job began what may be the most adventurous commute in Maryland. They boarded a broad-beamed vessel called the Moneytaker that carries them from a dock on the western shore to a platform anchored near the middle of the bridge.

From there, they have nowhere to go but up -- via a 30-foot extension ladder to the top of a concrete abutment. Up there, each man clips his safety harness to a cable, hoists himself across a girder and up onto a grate-covered platform.

Then it's hand over hand, straight up six to seven stories of gray-green steel ladders bolted onto the bridge. Small platforms every 15 feet or so provide respite along the way -- and landing spots in case of a fall.

Their destination: a catwalk -- suspended about 180 feet over the water and just below the rumble of traffic on the bridge's roadway -- leading to the work tents.

"Most people driving across the bridge right now don't realize what the heck's going on below them," says Jack Knisley of the Sherwin-Williams Co., whose Baltimore plant is supplying 40,000 gallons of paint for the job.

But the men can hardly ignore the vibrations rippling down from the road, along the girders, through the ladders and into their hands as they grip rungs high above the water.

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