Spiffing up the Ben Franklin

Now that the DRPA impasse is over, the Philadelphia side of the bridge can finally get a new coat of paint.

Posted: May 29, 2007

With five million square feet to cover - above the traffic and trains and the Delaware River gliding hundreds of feet below - the painting of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge is clearly no ordinary job, and not one to put off for too long.

The rusty portion of the bridge at the Philadelphia end has waited many months for a new coat of paint while the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey squabbled over a proposed channel deepening of the river.

But with the dispute settled May 17, the Delaware River Port Authority board is now ready to entertain bids on the Ben Franklin work and will soon focus on redecking the Walt Whitman Bridge, officials said.

Contracts for the bridge jobs could not be awarded earlier because Gov. Rendell, the DRPA chairman, refused to call a meeting while the dredging issue was unresolved.

This summer, the board is expected to choose a painting contractor, and work is likely to begin by the end of the year.

"The job is more than a brush and a bucket of paint," said John J. Matheussen, chief executive officer of DRPA. "Twenty-six to 30 coats of paint have to be removed down to bare metal. It has to be carefully done because of the lead in the paint, and that's complicated."

Power equipment and abrasives have been used to blast off the old coats of paint, officials said. And the paint chips and dust are not allowed to escape into the air or fall to the ground or into the river.

"We are more aware of taking care of the environment today," Matheussen said. Vacuums have been used to help contain and dispose of the dust safely.

The contractors also have been repairing joints and replacing aging rivets.

"The bridge [nearest Philadelphia] looks terrible, aesthetically," said Jeffrey Nash, DRPA vice chairman and a Camden County freeholder. "Right now, it's in desperate need of paint. It's been an ongoing process."

Phase one of the project began in 2001 at the end of the bridge on the New Jersey side. The towering New Jersey anchorage was finished in 2002 and the Pennsylvania anchorage in 2003.

The rest of the bridge, except for the part closest to Philadelphia, was done in 2004 and 2005. The total painting cost was expected to come in around $90 million.

But the awarding of money for the contract came to a halt about 17 months ago when the DRPA board stopped meeting over the dredging disagreement. Only emergency work could be approved, and painting was not considered an emergency.

The 720,000-ton Ben Franklin has been painted about every seven years since it opened in 1926, with intermittent maintenance in between.

The painting is a risky, high-paying job for the workers, who are perched like spiders in a web of main suspension cables 30 inches in diameter and smaller vertical cables that hold the deck below.

Matheussen said the latest blasting and painting work on the Ben Franklin was expected to be completed in 2008.

The redecking of the 50-year-old Walt Whitman also has become necessary as part of normal maintenance.

"We have to choose an engineering company and engage a firm to do the redecking," Matheussen said. "You have to take apart the bridge without disturbing its integrity. The decking is taken off a lane at a time while the traffic keeps flowing."

Matheussen said the work would begin next year and be completed in two or three years. "It's never been done on this bridge," he said.

The painting of the Ben Franklin will be finished long before that. "In a few more years, we'll have to start over again," Matheussen said. "But next time, it will be less complicated. We'll paint on top of paint."

As Nash said, "When you think of Philadelphia, when you think of the region, the Delaware Valley, you think of the Ben Franklin Bridge."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.

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