Lack of steel crosses into bridge plans

Long-overdue projects also threatened by labor shortage

`A temporary imbalance'

O'Donnell Street, Paper Mill Road spans could be affected

June 13, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

As cities and states around the country launch long-overdue bridge repair and replacement projects, shortages of steel and skilled workers threaten to set these programs back.

The shortages are causing temporary delays on bridge programs nationwide, including such local projects as the new O'Donnell Street overpass in Baltimore. But as billions in new federal highway money wash through the economy, those delays could persist, some in the industry say.

"Employees are our biggest asset and our biggest problem," said Jim Pue, a principal of Wilton Corp., a Finksburg-based metal fabricator that's making bridge components for the O'Donnell Street project. "We just can't find enough good help" such as draftsmen or welders.

Jack Murphy, vice president of Phoenix-based John W. Brawner Contracting Co. Inc., said: "It's going to get worse."

Others hope the squeeze will ease.

"There is a bubble of work" that's exacerbating shortages of labor and structural steel, said Pat Loftus, president of the Lancaster, Pa.-based High Steel Structures Inc., one of the nation's largest metal fabricators for bridges. "But it's a temporary imbalance."

Bridge-builders don't believe the problems will cause prolonged construction delays, but government agencies and companies involved with these projects acknowledge that it's taking some careful choreographing of the many tasks that go into bridge building to keep work crews from sitting idle while they wait for fabricated steel beams to reach the job site.

"We're going as fast as we can go," said

Pue. "We're sure that means problems for contractors -- there aren't enough [fabricators] out there to do the work that needs to be done."

Despite assurances that the extra workers will be found, it is possible the narrow, decrepit or ancient bridges that dot the country's thoroughfares could remain part of commuters' daily trips longer than expected.

The reason: A convergence of forces is creating a bridge-construction bottleneck.

First, a pair of huge projects -- the "Big Dig" in Boston and the Interstate 15 highway project in Utah -- have consumed enormous amounts of structural steel and construction labor, constricting a tight market for skilled workers.

Boston's $11 billion "Big Dig," a major thoroughfare program that includes underground highways and a third tunnel under Boston Harbor, has passed its halfway point but won't be completed until 2004.

Utah's I-15 project is designed to handle the hordes that Salt Lake City expects when the Winter Olympic Games are held there in 2002. At more than $1.5 billion, the project is supposed to be finished by October 2001.

The second force is the newest federal highway program, which allots $20.4 billion for bridges between now and 2003 -- the first significant bump in bridge repair and replacement money since the mid-1980s. With approval of that legislation, states can dust off their plans for long-delayed bridge projects, increasing demand for bridge-building resources.

In the early 1990s, with business slow, highway departments slashed their engineering and drafting staffs -- the very people now needed to get bridge projects under way.

Steel-fabrication companies, too, don't have -- and can't find -- enough draftsmen to draw the blueprints that welders on the shop floor must have to transform raw, I-shaped beams into the girders that make up a span's skeleton. Those companies also need more welders, whose skills take years to master.

With the largest bridges, steel mills can't make beams that are large enough, meaning welders must fashion the I-beam girders from three pieces of steel plate.

Intermittent shortages of steel are a final factor in the bottleneck that bridge builders face. Not every steel company makes the beams used in bridges. For instance, Bethlehem Steel Corp. stopped making that product when it shut down its mill in Bethlehem, Pa., several years ago. Its Coatesville, Pa., plant still makes the steel plate used in the largest structures.

It's the bridge job's general contractor who must juggle these problems.

"The monkey is on the back of the contractor," said Dan Zimmerman, construction program supervisor for the city, which oversees the area's two biggest bridge projects: the O'Donnell Street overpass and the $12 million bridge being built alongside the scarred span on Paper Mill Road that traverses Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County.

By most accounts, contractors are running hard to avoid delays: They send project managers to the mills to make sure steel will be delivered as promised; they give their crews other jobs on the project when fabricators fall behind schedule; and they have crews work overtime.

Brawner Contracting Co.'s Murphy said he recruits new workers via employees and has workers who travel from West Virginia because he can't find enough people here.

"It's depressed there and here I can offer them 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year," he said.

Fabricators say they also are working overtime and are trying to hire workers.

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