Joliet bridge project will be ‘fairly cutting edge,’ state engineer says
By Bob Okon email@example.com September 13, 2013 10:12PM
This bridge tender house at the Jackson Street Bridge and others at the six Joliet drawbridges will be unoccupied when the Illinois Department of Transportation completes their project. | Bob Okon~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 16, 2013 6:52AM
The plan to operate the six drawbridges in Joliet from one remote location will be a one-of-its-kind project, the state’s bridge maintenance engineer said.
“It’s fairly cutting edge,” said Sarah Wilson, bridge maintenance engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. “I think this is going to be a demonstration project that will have other people looking at.”
One Joliet councilman said the city will want to look at the project before it is implemented to make sure safety issues are addressed.
But Wilson said the plan to put bridge tenders in one building, instead of at individual bridges, could enhance safety by not leaving tenders on their own.
IDOT maintains and operates the six drawbridges in Joliet, which include the five downtown and a sixth at Brandon Road. They all cross the Des Plaines River.
The state will spend up to an estimated $6 million to equip the bridges with fiber optic cable and cameras, allowing tenders to lift and lower them from the bridge house located on Bridge Street. The project could be put out for bids by summer 2014, although Wilson cautioned that the timetable still depends on whether money is available to move ahead with the plan.
Wilson said she does not know of any other site where a half-dozen drawbridges used by vehicle traffic are operated from a remote location. The closest to it that she is aware of is in Milwaukee, where one tender operates two bridges while stationed at one of them.
But, she said, remote operations are more common for railroad bridges, and, “It has been done in the city of Joliet.” Wilson noted that the railroad bridge on the south end of downtown Joliet is operated remotely.
IDOT has been planning the conversion of the Joliet bridge operations to a remote location for four years, although Joliet officials first were informed of the plan in recent weeks.
Councilman Michael Turk chairs the Joliet City Council Public Service Committee, which learned of the project at a recent meeting. He said city officials expect to get more information about the project.
“We all have some questions on how it’s going to operate,” Turk said. “From what they’re telling us, the safety issues are covered.”
Turk noted that tenders not only lift bridges for barges that pass through town. They also watch for vehicles and pedestrians to make sure none are on the bridges when they start going up.
“They’re saying there will be cameras,” Turk said. “I’m hoping there are no blind spots.”
Greg Ruddy, public works administrator for Joliet, said the project does include new equipment, such as 12 cameras per bridge, aimed at giving the tenders a good view of barges, cars and pedestrians from the remote location.
“There will be quite a bit of video coverage,” Ruddy said. “From what we’ve seen so far safety seems to have been taken into account.”
Wilson said a case could be made that the remote operation will be safer because the tenders will be working in a group of three instead of by themselves. If anything were to happen to one of the tenders, two more would be standing by.
“I have a bridge tender that’s standing by himself in one spot,” Wilson said. “Let’s say that bridge tender has a heart attack. Who’s going to find him?”
IDOT will leave the existing tender houses intact, so that a bridge tender can go to the bridge and operate it on site if needed.
Wilson, however, acknowledged that reducing labor costs is a major motivation for the project, although, “It won’t be an immediate payoff.”
IDOT, aware that this project was coming and under budget constraints, has not been replacing bridge tenders. Joliet now has 19 bridge tenders instead of the 30 that it would have if fully staffed, Wilson said. Bridge tenders in Joliet now are working long overtime hours to make up for the short staff.
Teamsters Local 330, which represents the bridge tenders, could not be reached for comment on what impact the plan would have on jobs and working conditions.
Under the new system, IDOT will have three bridge tenders per shift instead of the six per shift needed now. IDOT said no layoffs are planned for the conversion to a remote operation, although overtime costs would be reduced.
IDOT expects to spend about two months equipping each of the six bridges, meaning the entire project could last about a year. The work will be staggered so only one bridge will be closed at a time. The remote operation will be implemented one bridge at a time as each bridge is equipped with the needed technology.