Official to unveil massive $1.2 billion expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge

Sometime Sunday afternoon, after the speeches and appreciations are done, after the traffic cones and barriers are cleared and after seven years of waiting, New Orleans area drivers for the first time will encounter the fully renovated Huey P. Long Bridge, a new, generously broad path over the Mississippi River — everything the pinched and unforgiving old bridge used not to be.

Sunday’s ceremonies mark the functional completion of the $1.2 billion job, the largest transportation construction project in state history.

Over seven years the bridge was spectacularly widened, fitted with a new steel superstructure supporting new roadways.

Its approaches have been thoroughly reworked, even while cars and trains continued to cross.

And even though a summer punch-list of construction items remains, most will be completed out of motorists’ sight, state transportation officials said.

To mark the occasion, the state is gearing up a celebratory weekend that in some ways recapitulates the bridge’s original opening in December 1935, even featuring a few guests who were among the first to cross the bridge as children.

But while the celebration 78 years ago called for a marching band from Hahnville High School, a trainload of dignitaries and fleets of American-made Chevys, Fords and Buicks, Sunday’s celebration is appropriately updated: a second line, a sweaty public jog across the bridge and then the public’s Toyotas, Audis and Hyundais.

The speeches remain a reliable fixture.

Because the event marks the transformation of a landmark long embedded in common memory, planners have lavished attention on the bridge now passing into lore, as well as the new one making its debut.

The Louisiana State Museum last week hosted a symposium on the “Huey P.’s” history, economic and cultural impact. And several officials and guests acknowledged something more: the psychological trauma that could come with crossing it.

In recent times 50,000 cars and trucks a day climbed 135 feet over the river and squeezed door handle-to-door-handle along the bridge’s narrow nine-foot lanes. Passing margins were tissue thin; there was no room to pull over. Driving the span at night was nerve-wracking. Driving in the rain at night was doubly so.

Some remember crossing the Huey P. as a dreaded rite of passage in a driver’s ed final exam. Even for the experienced, getting safely across, one joke went, required steady nerves and a diaper.

Now the expanded bridge carries three wide lanes in each direction instead of two narrow ones. Each will be 11 feet wide, with a two-foot inside shoulder and an eight-foot outside shoulder.

The renovation is financed by a 4-cent gasoline tax, part of the state’s massive, $4.6 billion TIMED transportation program.

But if the new bridge is the star of Sunday’s celebration, state officials have also used the event to celebrate the old bridge.

Along with the Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge and Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the Huey P. Long has been honored as a national engineering landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The bridge was the first Mississippi River crossing to be anchored in the soft deltaic soil of South Louisiana, Miles Bingham, an engineer, said at the symposium.

Bingham said its foundations 110 feet below the river bed were “a marvel” designed by Karl Terzaghi, an Austrian civil engineer generally regarded as the father of soil mechanics.

When it opened, connecting the two banks of Jefferson Parish upriver from New Orleans, the Huey P. became the first railroad bridge below Vicksburg.

That made it an immediate economic blessing that obviated the need of local railroads to barge freight trains across the river in pieces, said engineer and author Tonja Koob Marking.

Expected to cost $13 million, the Depression Era bridge came in under budget at $9.4 million, or $215 million in 2012 dollars, she said.

That was ahead of schedule, despite a month-long strike in which skilled ironworkers at the top of the wage scale saw their pay climb to $1.25 an hour, UNO labor historian Michael Mizell-Nelson said.

Mizell-Nelson added that in those days, workers organized for wages, not safety.

Period photographs show bridge workers high aloft the structure while shirtless and in fedoras and soft caps – no nets, no safety harnesses, not even hard hats.

Marking and other historians said they’ve seen no surviving record of worker injuries or deaths that occurred while the bridge was under construction.

But William Conway, the retired chairman and CEO of the engineering firm of Modjeski and Masters and an expert on the bridge, said an old industry rule of thumb used to estimate one fatality per million dollars of construction cost.

Shane Peck, a state transportation spokesman, said he believes two men were killed in the widening project.

It was Conway’s firm that performed the study in the 1980s that found the old bridge could be widened.

The reason: The Huey P. Long is fundamentally a super-sturdy railroad bridge, designed at the peak of the era of behemoth steam locomotives, and built to safely shoulder the still-heavier next-generation monsters that bridge engineers thought were coming, Conway said.

But they never came. Steam locomotives were eclipsed by the arrival of lighter diesel engines.

Conway said a single train track, fully loaded, exerts a load 10 times heavier than a single roadway lane packed bumper to bumper with trucks.

Given that the bridge was built to carry maximum loads on not one, but two railroad tracks, the additional weight of auto traffic was almost an afterthought, Conway said.

Even adding extra lanes of traffic “we’re adding a load almost insignificant compared to the railroad loading which is the fundamental role of this bridge,” he said.

Its foundations remain so solid that engineers reinforced the existing concrete piers and hoisted another 17,500 of steel onto the bridge to widen it with no concern about its footing.

“It had excess capacity we could utilize,” Conway said.

He recalled the expression a fellow engineer used to describe the Huey P. after he would conduct periodic bridge inspections.

“Hell-for-stout,” Conway said. “He’d come back from an inspection and tell me, ‘Bill, that’s a hell-for-stout bridge.’ ”