Last October, at the dedication of the O'Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge near Hoover Dam, I said the new crossing was "proof positive that America is not afraid to dream big." And since then the Hoover Dam Bridge has been widely acclaimed as a "new landmark," a "majestic showcase," and a "great American triumph."
But completing a seemingly weightless structure--wedged into the rock cliffs of the Black Canyon 900 feet above the Colorado River and capable of carrying US-93's thousands of cars and trucks each day--was no simple matter. For Federal Highway Administration engineer Dave Zanetell, it was the challenge of a lifetime.
The new crossing required unprecedented engineering and project management creativity. It required the kind of innovation this country has long prided itself on, which is exactly what President Obama evoked in last week's State of the Union address.
Believe it or not, when Dave was offered the position of Project Manager, some of his fellow engineers tried to discourage him from taking on the project. They told him:
“That job will never be properly funded. The budget is not nearly enough for a bypass like this. Stakeholders will never support the job. It’s a pipe dream. It’s career suicide.”
But Dave thought about it and “realized that nothing great—certainly, no great public works project—ever happened because it was easy.”
“I never had a doubt about this project—not one,” he says. “I have to believe that Frank Crowe, who had my position with the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, was surrounded by naysayers. I know for a fact he never doubted. I think it’s important that, when you’re leading the effort, your team knows, ‘Our leader has no doubt.’”
The first set of challenges involved the technical structure and aesthetics of the new bridge's design. This was complicated by the unique location and the need for wind and seismic stability. The next set of challenges was logistical--how to efficiently transport crews, equipment, and materials to the site. The biggest problem to solve was the limited ability of existing concretes to withstand the 130 degree heat the bridge's structure and roadway would face.
The project also required Dave to get all of the stakeholders on the same page. Achieving a working consensus among two state governments, four federal agencies, five general contractors, and dozens of consultants could easily have caused Dave to walk away.
“Yes," he says, "It took a little work to mold all of that talent into a cohesive group with a singular vision. But we created synergies instead of stovepipes, aligning a lot of disparate knowledge and different agendas under a common framework."
Dave's professional ability to find creative answers to this project's complicated challenges is impressive. But his personal resolve to see it through to an on-time, under-budget completion is absolutely inspiring.
"The main outcome we wanted to create," says Dave, "is a sense of possibility. Great things can and should be done. It doesn't have to be that great civil works also leave an uncertain fiscal legacy. We can do both: achieve greatness and do it as planned."
And that is the kind of innovative and determined American approach that will help us solve our complex transportation problems and win the future.