ne by one, they came rumbling out of the western horizon. Massive earthmoving machines tore over a dirt road, charged up a gigantic dirt ramp, and released their dusty cargos. They then circled, their bellies low to the ground, compacting the dirt beneath their colossal wheels. The sound was deafening. “By tomorrow this ramp will be three feet higher than it is now,” Ramon Hopkins, the project’s head Caltrans engineer, said while pointing to the mound under his feet. “It was three feet lower yesterday.” Around him rose the beginnings of two great bridges, part of the largest state civil works project in the county. “It’s a magnificent dirt pile,” said this awestruck reporter. “It’s fill, not a dirt pile,” Hopkins said, with what sounded like mock severity. “You’ve got to learn the terms, you know.” Two immense mounds of dirt, created by the fastmoving earth movers (or “scrapers,” in the slang of the bridge-building crew), rise up on each side of a dry and dusty canyon a few miles east of the Paso
Two new bridges and a widened path will change a dangerous highway forever BY ROBERT A. McDONALD PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
Robles Airport. They are the beginnings of ramps that will deliver thousands of cars to two of the largest bridges built in San Luis Obispo County in more than 50 years. The project is the most visible evidence of state and federal government investment in local roads, and it’s the largest state public-works project on the Central Coast. There are 60 to 70 workers at the bridge site at any one time. Hundreds more work daily on widening the highway. The bridges will stretch 1,000 feet over the canyon and connect two new sections of Highway 46. It’s part of a $200 million Caltrans project to widen Highway 46 between Paso Robles and Shandon. From there, the project will eventually continue to the San Joaquin Valley.
Highway 46 is infamous for taking the lives of its drivers, most notably James Dean in 1955. Caltrans engineers are expanding the highway from two to four lanes, which they believe will make the road much safer. “The biggest project benefit is that we’re working BRIDGE continued on page 18
A Overview of construction site. B and C Red-painted steel forms are bolted into place around the structural steel cages. D and E An approximately 100foot section of steel cage built by the Ironworkers Union for the column bases is moved to allow another section to be made. F The top section of the steel column forms includes a form liner to provide a decorative impression into the concrete. G Workers from the Pile Drivers, Carpenter, Operators, and Laborers unions build the falsework that will support the bridge deck while itâ€™s being poured. You can see two men working on the I Beam in the upper left.
BRIDGE continued from page 16
to reduce this long-standing history of traffic accidents, head-on collisions, broadside collisions,” said Jim Shivers, a Caltrans spokesman. “By widening this highway, we see this as a major safety improvement, not just for people from the San Joaquin Valley, but for local commuters, too.”
The money for the project flows from many sources. California taxpayers will pay for a lot of it. A bond proposition passed in 2006 will cover much of the cost, but federal money pays for a large portion, too. The road is important—and not just for valley residents desperate to get to the coast. Designated part of the Strategic Highway Network, the federal government recognizes the highway as a vital thoroughfare for the defense of the United States’ West Coast. The road is the only military access route from the coast to inland areas of the state between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Caltrans officials say funding was much easier to obtain for a project such as this than for a conventional route. Current safety standards restrict new highways from having steep grades, if at all possible. Because of these restrictions, the road sweeps grandly away from the present track and will remain relatively level as it goes over the bridges, rather than dipping steeply and rising out of the Estrella River valley.
Toys for boys and girls
The centerpieces of the project will be the two bridges spanning the valley. Where 100-foot deep holes pierce the valley floor, there once stood a wolf rescue. It’s been moved to the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero. Now, the valley is filled with massive machinery, constantly moving like dragons toiling in their lair, with workers darting between them. Bulldozers large and small swarm the worksite, many hooked up to GPS devices that track their every move. In the heart of the valley, 100-foot holes are dug, then filled with quick-drying concrete and masses of steel reinforced tubes. On top of the concretefilled holes loom massive pillars that will eventually support the two roadways, one going west and the other east. The bridges are the largest in California currently under construction, with the exception of the San Francisco Bay Bridge replacement project. They’re scheduled to be complete by 2013, with construction of the full road-widening project wrapping up a few years later. “This is one of the most fulfilling jobs Caltrans has—and one of the toughest,” Hopkins said. “But it’s also where you get to build things. There is nothing like it.” ∆ Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A and B A King Kong vibratory hammer is used to drive a pile casing into the ground to protect the pile shaft from collapsing while digging the base for a column. C and D The column’s upper steel cage section—seen on the ground and erected vertically in place. E Workers wrestle the King Kong hammer into place. F Looking deep into the pile shaft, which is the underground portion of the column. G and H Column forms are bolted into place by hand.