Old bridge getting new look

The old Mississippi River Bridge, which opened nearly three-quarters of a century ago, is undergoing renovations that will cost more than 10 times the original pricetag.

Most of the roughly $100 million project involves putting a new coat of light gray paint on the structure, which was last painted in 1968.

However, all the water and sand blasting and weather hurdles take time.

The project is supposed to be done by spring 2016, said Chris B. Guidry, assistant bridge design administrator for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

“Our hope is that we can get another 50 years out of the structure,” Guidry said. “If we hadn’t done this project, we were probably looking at 20 years if we could keep it that long.”

The painting of the main truss, which is what most motorists notice, should be finished by next summer, he said.

The state is paying for less than half of the upgrade, Guidry said.

The bridge opened for traffic on Aug. 4, 1940, at a cost of $8.4 million, replacing the ferries that travelers relied on for decades.

It includes two lanes on each side for cars and trucks, and a rail line in the center.

Eight or nine workers died during the construction, according to news accounts.

The line is mostly used today by the Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific railroads; they are paying for about 55 percent of the improvements, Guidry said.

Months of legal wrangling resulted in trains being unable to use the bridge from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“So trains have had to reschedule their entire way of business for 3½ years to accommodate this work,” Guidry said.

The structure, which connects East and West Baton Rouge parishes, is officially called the Huey P. Long Bridge.

However, it is usually called the U.S. 190 Bridge or the old Mississippi River Bridge in deference to the “new” bridge a few miles downriver, which opened in 1968.

Motorists prefer the new one by a long shot. Average daily traffic is 29,000 on the old one, compared with 86,000 vehicles on the new bridge.

DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas said recently she hopes to generate more traffic, and less congestion on the new bridge, by upgrading the La. 1 corridor between the new and old bridges. That way more motorists will use the old one.

The initial phase of the renovations began in December 2012.

The new color resembles a battleship gray. It replaces the orange-red that supposedly began coloring the strucuture because of bauxite at a nearby plant.

The road portion of the bridge is about 1.5 miles long. The rail section is just over 2 miles.

The first step in the project was to water blast the bird droppings, dirt and moisture that had accumulated over decades.

Repairs are done along the way, including work on connection plates, girders and moorings.

Thousands of rivets, which used to commonly used to connect steel structures, are being replaced with bolts.

“When steel isn’t protected, it rusts,” Guidry noted. “And when it rusts enough, it disappears.

“So it has just been sitting out there,” he added. “It had a good paint system on it, but it doesn’t last forever.”

Like any paint job, workers have to work around the hot and cold weather.

Humidity also is a major factor.

“They bring in equipment that brings out the humidity,” Guidry said.

Even low levels of lead in the paint means it has to be handled with care.

“Everything that is blasted off has to be captured and sent off to treatment facilities,” he said. “Inside that containment system, he has dehumidifiers.

“You can’t go buy a spray gun from Home Depot and beat this kind of stuff,” Guidry said. “It is a very sophisticated kind of system.”

The painting and repairs goes on six days a week, 10 hours per day and sometimes at night.

Up to 100 or so workers are on the project at times.

The bridge was strengthened in 1985 and the lanes were widened from 10 feet to 11 feet.

That compares with 12-foot-wide lanes on the new bridge.

“The shoulders on the new bridge are probably substandard, but not illegal,” Guidry said. “Just not desireable.”

He said that, once it is done, the upgrade on the 73-year-old bridge should benefit the entire area.

“At least you have this new, freshly-painted structure.”