A quick trip on Interstate 77 is more difficult this weekend as drivers heading south from Charlotte are sharing the Catawba River bridge with contractors trying to keep concrete chunks from falling out from under them.
S.C. Department of Transportation contractors are working all weekend long, hoping to permanently close a 2-by-4-foot hole that opened in the bridge earlier this week.
Crews started work about 9 p.m. Friday, after rush-hour traffic cleared at the end of the work week. The crews hope to have both southbound lanes open on Sunday to allow weekday traffic full use of the bridge.
The repairs are an emergency, DOT officials said, after a large chunk of the concrete broke from the bridge and was stopped from falling into the Catawba River by the steel under-structure that supports the bridge.
This isn’t the first time crews have been called to patch the Catawba bridge and other overpasses along the I-77 corridor.
For the past year DOT has kept a contract crew on call to deal with bridge problems. The contract ended prior to the latest bridge problems.
This week’s emergency maintenance call was the first of its kind in two and a half years, according to the state Department of Transportation. A DOT maintenance crew closed two southbound lanes of the bridge for about 24 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, repairing a hole in the middle of the highway just as rush hour began, backing up traffic for miles.
That crew sealed the hole enough to allow traffic to flow safely for the rest of the week, but permanent repairs were contracted to Triangle Grading and Paving of Burlington, N.C., which has more specialized equipment.
“They have what’s called a platform lift,” said Jason Johnston, the DOT district construction engineer. “It has a big, long mechanical arm that can go underneath the bridge. ... We don’t have the equipment to do that in house.”
The last time a state-employed maintenance crew made an emergency deck repair on the Catawba River bridge was July 25, 2013, one of six emergency calls for repairs on the I-77 corridor in the previous three years.
Over a one-year contact period, which ended in October, Triangle performed 21 separate maintenance jobs on bridges on the widened section of the interstate in York County, between Carowinds and Dave Lyle Boulevard. Seven of the projects were on the Catawba River bridge.
That work was preventative – an effort to catch problems before they develop into an emergency. All those shutdowns, like this weekend’s, were completed between Friday and Monday to keep traffic disruptions to a minimum.
The state’s contract for permanent repair work with Triangle isn’t permanent. Prior to signing a deal with the North Carolina company, DOT had not had an outside contractor for concrete repairs – including some older stretches of interstate in addition to bridge work – for several years. Now that the contract has expired, DOT officials have not decided if they will sign another contract. It depends on how much operations funding the department wants to put aside for “specialty work.”
“This could be the last hole they do for us,” Johnston said.
Triangle will still do this weekend’s work, using funds from the previous contract period.
“We would have found the money,” Johnston said. “It’s either that or have a hole in the bridge.”
The bridge’s troubles are a combination of age and travel volume. As the main artery between Rock Hill and Charlotte, I-77 has one of the most heavily trafficked bridges in the county – one that originally opened as two separate bridges in 1974. Interior lanes were added to the existing bridges in 2000 when the interstate was widened. This week’s hole formed in the older, original bridge lanes.
“It’s not like a pothole in a road on the ground, because there’s nothing underneath it,” said district maintenance engineer Todd Cook. “It could go all the way through.”
Unless DOT signs a new repair contract, state maintenance workers will be responsible for future repairs. Besides an annual state inspection, DOT does regular visual checks on the condition of the bridge.
As long as the bridge is maintained Cook said there is no date when it would need to be replaced. Much of his focus is on re-coating the steel girders that support the concrete.
“It’s just like re-painting your house so the wood won’t rot,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the department won’t occasionally have to make repairs during the peak travel periods like the interstate saw this week, but the goal is to avoid it, for the safety of the work crews as much as the commuters.