Schutze

Just Pretend the Calatrava Bridge Really Is Opening, Sit Back and Listen to Lyle.

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Lyle Lovett, folks! Think of it that way! Lyle Lovett is going to be here.

Last week The Dallas Morning News brought some very sobering news to its readers. It seems the cost of the bridge that isn't opening this weekend has skyrocketed from $117 million to $182 million. Oh, my gosh. Skyrocketed! But the News left out a sort of important detail. The original cost of the bridge was supposed to be only $57 million, not $117 million.

The Margaret Hunt Hill is the only one of the seven originally planned make-believe suspension bridges that is not a replacement. It goes where no bridge has gone before. Critics argue that's because no one wanted to go there, but let's not go back into that. It's a new bridge. Maybe the other six will never be built. We can only hope.

At the time this one — the one that isn't opening this weekend — was first being bandied about, state highway officials told the Observer that a regular old "plain vanilla" highway bridge (Who knew they had flavors?) would cost about $40 million. Not too far down the road, city officials began announcing what seemed like sumptuous private donations, including $12 million from Hunt petroleum in exchange for naming rights.

So let's assume we put in $28 million (our budgeted contribution), and we get $12 million or so from the state and federal governments, plus $12 million from the Hunts to name it for their grandma. The bridge only costs $57 million, we're told. Plus we're going to get rich from it anyway. So, you know, man, we need to be high rollers and just do this thing.

The big slap-the-spit-out-our-mouths moment came in 2006 when the bids to build it came in. The low bid, from Williams Bros. Construction of Houston, was $113 million. As our governor might say ...

Oops.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, a librarian by training, assured the public she had jaw-boned Mr. Calatrava into making several very significant engineering changes in the bridge to cut costs, including replacing steel decks with concrete decks, welded joints with bolts and expensive American steel throughout with a great buy on steel someone had found at a mill in Italy, plus generally squeezing down the fake suspension part to a smaller arch.

No one has ever suggested that these changes had anything to do with the ultimate appearance of the bridge now — sort of a slightly larger than normal McDonald's arch made of PVC. No one seems to be worried about the bolts or the cheaper steel. Probably everything will be fine with that. Maybe you don't want to slam on your brakes real hard in the middle of the bridge. Just use normal caution.

The scary thing, anyway, was the sand.

In 2009 they started drilling huge holes in the river bottom to sink the piers that would actually carry the weight of the bridge. If it were a real suspension bridge — even if you want to call it "cable-stayed bridge," whatever — it wouldn't need all those piers, which would be the point of building a suspension bridge in the first place, but ...

Lyle Lovett, right here in Dallas! If you start to feel your mind becoming disturbed in any way, think about Lyle Lovett. We're almost done here.

So they're out there in the river with a big drilling rig, boring a hole for a bunch of concrete to make a pier, and all of a sudden the whole drilling rig goes whomper-jawed and starts tilting around like a carnival ride.

This was another case where the city didn't want the Observer to see the official report. The Morning News, of course, never asked. Finally we got our hands on it, and it said the following:

"During the drilling of piers for Bent 6 (located 300' from the wet side toe of the west levee), the contractor reported that large quantities of sand in the formation liquefied even though slurry was being used to hold the excavation open."

Translation: They've bored into a stratum of liquid sand that's shooting into their bore hole so fast they can't stabilize it even by pouring in a concrete-like slurry compound.

Later in the report, the contractor reports sticking a huge pipe or cofferdam into the hole to hold the liquid sand out. Then they couldn't get the pipe out. So they just left it in there.

It's fine. No one has ever suggested in any way, shape or form that this bridge is going to fall down, certainly not during the Lyle Lovett concert, which is the main thing.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze