A Day in the Life of the Mackinac Bridge
Over one typical 24-hour period in late June, the maintenance crew labored on the bridge deck and beneath the road bed. While some crew members were suspended more than 200 feet above the Straits sanding and then painting a portion of the north tower, the bridge patrol boat stood safety watch in the water below. In the approach area on I-75 just north of the bridge, repairs were made to the commercial truck scales. Patch work was done to the deck surface. Paint guards were moved from one section to another below the steel mall that divides the four traffic lanes. A welder prepared replacement pipe rail sections. Routine security patrols were conducted. One nervous driver was driven over the five-mile span, and cargo trucks and wide-loads were ushered over the 50-year-old structure.
"We have 96 employees at the bridge this year," said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA).
Bridge jobs don't open up very often, said Mr. Sweeney, but about two years ago, five jobs needed to be filled.
"One of the questions we always ask applicants is, 'Are you afraid of heights, and will you be able to work in these conditions?'"
Most will say the heights and wind won't bother them, he said, although some don't come back the next day.
"Most of the people will get more and more comfortable after they've been out on the bridge," he said.
Mr. Sweeney remembers his first time climbing the main cable, with electricians who were changing the lights one mid-November day. It almost feels like you are a combination of a skydiver and a sailor, he said.
Pausing, he added, "It was a spectacular feeling being out there."
During the climb up the cable, Mr. Sweeney recalled that one of the electricians said that was the kind of day he looked forward to in his job. Recalling the electrician's words, Mr. Sweeney said, "These are my favorite days ever to come to work. Where can you ever get a view like this, and you're out on the cable?"
On his first day, climbing with men accustomed to the conditions, Mr. Sweeney said he only made it halfway up the cable, as he was not able to keep up with the experienced workers and they had to complete that task that day while the weather was good.
Of those 96 employees, 52 people work in maintenance.
"It's physically demanding work," said Joe Visnaw, assistant maintenance foreman from St. Ignace, "and there's always that fear of heights you have to deal with."
The maintenance staff uses the buddy system; no one ever works alone while working on the bridge, said Dan Johnson, bridge supervisor.
"We always work with a minimum of two men for safety reasons," he said.
Wind and weather continually play a role in bridge maintenance, allowing projects to move forward in good conditions and causing projects to be rescheduled or stopped as winds increase or storms move into the area. As Lakes Michigan and Huron meet at the narrows of the Straits of Mackinac, winds often are stronger and temperatures cooler on the bridge than in near- by towns.
On this day, Monday, June 25, a haze of humidity lays over the Straits and fills the air, making it difficult even to see Mackinac Island, less than five miles away. During the 24-hour period, winds peak at 25 miles per hour and the temperature on the bridge deck reaches 73 degrees, while off the bridge, winds are calm and the temperature is in the mid-80s.
Traffic is reduced to one lane in both directions on the bridge as maintenance crews head out just before 8 a.m. to work on several projects. A crew of three sand a portion of the north tower, where wind and pebbles kicked up by passing vehicles chip away at the paint. Because it is corrosive, salt is not used to melt snow and ice accumulating on the bridge, but cars and trucks pick salt up off the shore roads and spray it over the steel as they pass, said Mr. Visnaw.
Removing the rust and recoating these damaged areas helps to increase life of the bridge by preserving the steel, he said. The bridge crew is responsible for painting the towers, the main cables, and the suspension cables, but the under-deck painting is contracted out.
This morning, Stanley Wekwert is hoisted in a steel basket called a sky climber over the Straits and positioned about 20 feet above the bridge deck on the north side of the tower. Safety cables, an air hose, and a high-pressure hose used to sandblast the steel are connected to a specially-equipped truck parked on the deck. The basket hangs from a steel cable that is attached to the top of the tower, 250 feet above the water, and one of two safety lines he is wearing on his harness is always attached to the sky climber.
Mr. Wekwert, wearing protective clothing and connected to an oxygen hose, looks like he is wearing a space suit. In the sky climber he is focused on removing rust, in preparation for two coats of primer, then paint. Steve Campbell and Greg Goetz assist him from the bridge deck, and when the sanding is completed later in the day, Mr. Goetz will climb into the protective suit and sky climber and begin priming and painting in the bridge's traditional ivory color.
On the opposite side of the bridge deck and near the south tower, another maintenance project is underway. Todd Mayer and Larry Antkoviack look like spacemen, too, as they sand the steel pipe rail on the outside edge of the roadway. The rail serves as a bumper for vehicles, and it, too, will be primed and painted.
When the time comes to paint the cables, the painters will wear gloves that they dip in paint. Wiping the cable with a paintsoaked glove allows the paint to soak between the cable wires. Cables used to be painted by a man standing in a barrel, Mr. Sweeney said. The barrel would be tilted as the painter leaned out to paint the cables.
Charlie Harrington is the pot tender this day, regulating the sand and air pressure at the equipment truck for the sandblasting.
Plywood is set up between the pipe rail and the catwalk to protect the outer green painted areas from the sanding. To get the rail completely sanded, the two men work in unusual positions. To remove rust underneath, they lie down on the road. Removing rust on the water side of the pipe rail requires they bend at the waist with their heads upside-down.
"That's a physically demanding job, right there," said Mr. Visnaw, "if you do that 10 hours a day, or even for eight hours."
On this day, the men will work 10 hours.
"When we have good weather and low traffic, we put in the hours," noted Mr. Johnson.
Before he begins suiting, Mr. Mayer prepares for the strenuous work by stretching his leg muscles. He uses techniques similar to those practiced by dancers, only he uses a guard rail 199 feet above the Straits of Mackinac.
He works as cars, motor homes, and semi trucks pass by in the next lane. The deck vibrates from the movement, but while always aware of the traffic, he and his cohorts are focused on their work and the weather.
Workers are trained on safety, to always be vigilant, said Mr. Visnaw. A camper can drive by with a step left down, knocking over cones and invading the work lane.
"We are always aware of the traffic," he said. "Just because you're inside the cones doesn't mean you're safe. We preach safety.
It is a comment heard throughout the day.
A patrol boat stationed near the bridge provides an added dimension of safety for working crews, even though there is no state or federal regulation that requires it.
On this day, Paul White pilots the Pier Tender, a 40-foot-long former Coast Guard boat from the 1940s.
Waves averaged about a foot as he steered the boat toward the center span, slowing to allow a freighter to pass underneath the bridge. Mr. White considers it a good day and remembers one trip, about five years ago, when work was stopped on the deck and he returned to shore as strong winds came in and waves increased.
"If the winds blow 35 to 40 miles per hour, we get five- to six-foot waves. Those conditions kind of make your heart pump a little harder," he said.
Two radios onboard the vessel allow Mr. White to communicate with maintenance operations and, if needed, Coast Guard Station St. Ignace.
From the boat, workers can be seen working beneath the bridge deck as part of the mall painting project. The mall is a steel divider between the northbound and southbound lanes on the center span. To protect the green-painted underdeck area while the mall is sanded and painted ivory, rubber pads are placed below the mall. On this day, working beneath the deck, Paul Matelski and Fred Spinella are removing the pads from a newly painted mall section. They work from scaffolding beneath the bridge, which allows them to reach up and easily pull down the rubber pads, said Mr. Matelski.
Todd Joseph, who also pilots Pier Tender when needed, is working on the bridge deck. Mr. Joseph, along with Joe Shampine, are making repairs to minor cracks in the concrete of the catwalk on the northbound side. Both men have worked at the bridge for 10 years.
The two men remove the cracked concrete, clean the area, and paint a protective coat of sealer on the steel reinforcement bars that run inside the concrete decking. The sealer helps protect the bars from rust. Each repair area later will be filled with fresh concrete.
This project includes 15 repair areas, and, from removing the old concrete to pouring the new, about two of them can be completed in a day.
At the north approach to the bridge, two sets of electronic scales are embedded in the road to check the weight of both northbound and southbound trucks. They receive annual maintenance, but today they are malfunctioning, and Dan Merren and Bill Fitzpatrick are assigned to repair them.
"The maximum weight allowed on the Mackinac Bridge is 72 tons, or 144,000 pounds," said Mr. Sweeney. "That is slightly less than the maximum allowed on I-75, which is 80 tons by permit."
If a truck is over the weight limit, an alarm is sounded in the MBA operations room, alerting staff to stop the vehicle before it crosses the bridge.
Back at the maintenance garage east of the toll plaza, welder Jeff Fogelsonger prepares pipes that will be used to replace worn sections of the bridge pipe rail. Worn areas are removed in two-foot sections and new pieces of the steel piping are welded into place.
Maintenance Supervisor Dan Johnson works from a master maintenance plan to schedule daily bridge work. He meets with lead supervisors each day to discuss planned projects and set schedules. Projects are scheduled around the traffic volumes and weather, he said. When traffic slows in the spring and fall, grates are replaced. For that work, bridge traffic is slowed and lanes closed.
Bridge maintenance and toll collection are the most visible operations to travelers crossing the bridge, but inside the MBA building, just to the east of the toll plaza, other employees are assigned to administration and operations.
Approximately $15 million is collected in tolls each year and, on average, that is about what is spent on maintenance and operations. Mike Litzner, chief financial officer, oversees the auditing and audit controls of the revenues and expenses at the bridge.
Three engineers work at the bridge, including Mr. Sweeney, who is a civil engineer. The MBA also hires an engineering firm each year to perform an annual inspection on the bridge. Chief Engineer Kim Nowack is in charge of the engineering on the bridge. She oversees maintenance, the consulting engineers, and any contractual maintenance work.
Mr. Sweeney is responsible for all functions at the bridge. He reports to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, serves as its executive secretary in a non-voting position, and reports to Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Bridge operations, including daily bridge maintenance and preservation projects, are completely funded by bridge tolls and investment income, said Mr. Sweeney.
Maintenance work during the evening and night focuses on bridge escorts and driver assistant programs. Two women, Kathleen Bielat and Margaret "Sister" Doud, and shift leader Steve Benko are in the office for less than 30 minutes when they receive two escort calls.
Ms. Bielat attends Western Michigan University and is spending her sixth season at the bridge. She answers a call to escort a cargo truck carrying paint across the bridge. The truck is waiting in Mackinaw City. Once across the bridge, she signals to the driver as she follows with flashing lights. The escort serves to alert other drivers. While crossing the bridge, a second call comes over the radio for a wide load escort. Wide load crossings are made by appointment, are not allowed to cross on weekends, and only after 6 p.m. during the week.
Ms. Doud and Mr. Benko will lead and follow the transport across in separate vehicles.
The bridge staff also will assist people across the bridge by driving for them, and will transport bicyclists and pedestrians.
"We try to be as accommodating as we can for each other and for our customers," said Ms. Doud, who has worked at the bridge for 21 years. Over that period, the most driver assists she has had is 15 during one shift.
The strangest driver assist experience, she said, was driving a woman who was moving. Inside the car, in cages, were the woman's 58 pet rats.
They also assist with vehicle breakdowns, Mr. Benko said.
"We've got to keep the bridge clear," he said. "Our main job is on the bridge deck."
The crew also performs security checks and prepares maintenance vehicles for the next day by checking the oil and filling gas tanks.
"I can drive the bridge 40 times a night, for one reason or another," said Mr. Benko.
Ms. Bielat agrees.
"That's what I like about this job," she said. "You have an idea of what you're going to do for the day and then you take it as it comes."
Third shift Supervisor Dan O'Brien arrives 30 minutes before the midnight shift begins for preparation work for the night staff. With traffic not expected to increase for the season until Thursday, one toll booth in each direction will be open.
"We have our nights where we say it's busy," he said, "but not compared to days."
Mr. O'Brien, who has worked at the bridge since 1994, is stationed in the operations room just east of the toll booths. The room contains computers and bridge camera monitors and offers a direct view of the bridge, toll booths, and vehicles approaching the booths from the north.
Scott Kinjorski, an employee since 1998, provides security patrols, covers for breaks taken by toll collectors, and helps with driver assists and escorts.
Security patrol includes checking bridge signage along US-2 and I-75 near St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. The signs alert motorists to bridge conditions. He patrols Bridge View Park and the bridge. Bridge View Park remains open to vehicles all night, although the building is locked. Mr. Kinjorski sometimes has to remind campers they cannot spend the night in the parking lot.
He patrols north and south areas of the bridge, including the bridge deck.
On this night, with temperatures still in the 70s, the fish flies are hatching. They are food for seagulls. As the flies are drawn to the bridge lights, so are the seagulls seeking a meal. As the patrol car enters the causeway, Mr. Kinjorski slows down as the seagulls take flight, heading in all directions, narrowly avoiding the patrol car.
For those few cars crossing the bridge, a stop at the toll booth serves as a chance to query toll collector Tracey Campbell on the reason for the number of seagulls.
"There's always something going on that they ask about," she said, "it just depends on the time of year it is."
Mrs. Campbell has worked at the bridge for nine years and calls herself a night person. Winter weather doesn't bother her, although mosquitos do. On this night, she keeps the lights down on the inside of her toll booth to deter the bugs.
"I'd rather be here in the wintertime," she said. "Winter does not bother me as long as the heater works, and we have good heaters."
Throughout this day on the Mackinac Bridge, 13,272 vehicles safely crossed the structure. Of those, 6,621 vehicles traveled from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula and 6,651 traveled north. One driver from the north was assisted across the span, and 34 escorts were provided by the MBA staff.