Workers simultaneously cut strands of steel rebar that connect giant girders at Standard Concrete Products’ Atlanta plant. The family-owned company produced and delivered 61 bridge girders to the I-85 project over a 15 day stretch. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

How a concrete company saved Atlanta’s commute

A soft rain peppered the worker’s orange safety vest and hard hat, but didn’t come close to snuffing the blue-flamed torch in his right hand.

He signaled with his left to three other men also holding torches at intervals along the line of newly minted concrete girders. All the men leaned down, aimed their torches and burned through several of the 50 steel strands that ran for hundreds of feet through the girders, connecting them to each other.

A few weeks earlier, the same process created the girders that underpin Atlanta’s most famous road repair.

Those massive beams had been an emergency rush order, needed to repair the section of I-85 that collapsed March 30. The job for Standard Concrete Products in Atlanta started with a phone call from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

“They called us while the bridge was still on fire,” Mason Lampton, Standard’s chief executive, said as he stood in the rain one morning this week, watching his workers burn through the steel to separate the nearly finished girders.

Behind the rapid repair of the I-85 bridge was a subcontractor in west Atlanta who made incredibly heavy girders -- and produced them at a record pace to get the job done.

The fierce blaze and subsequent collapse of I-85 intensified an already difficult Atlanta commute. State officials knew that until it was repaired, the impassable section would make driving even more of an expense and inconvenience than it is, even in the best of times.

So they wanted it fixed as soon as possible.

STEP BY STEP: HOW THE I-85 FIX HAPPENED SO FAST

Officials quickly picked C.W. Matthews as the contractor, offering a bonus if it finished early. Standard was already busy, but it agreed to provide the beams for Matthews.

The work on I-85 cost the state about $16.6 million. The exact value of Standard Concrete’s piece of that was not available. But a project of that size typically would be worth about $2 million, said Robert Risser, chief executive of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, a Chicago-based trade group.

Concrete was being poured for the first of the girders the following week, Lampton said.

“We had 78 guys here and they worked a lot more hours than usual. We went two-and-a-half weeks without a day off, going 11, 12, 13 hours a day.”

The company supplied 61 girders for the project, including 49 made at its Atlanta plant off Hollywood road west of I-75.

As each 80,000-pound girder was finished it was loaded on a specially rigged truck given a police escort to the repair site. The last one left the plant on April 21.

“They cleared the roads for us to get the job done,” Lampton said.

More from Savannah

A dozen girders came from Standard’s plant in Savannah and were trucked across the state by Starrette Specialized Hauling. One by one, workers installed the girders on six spans – three southbound, three northbound – and tied them together with steel reinforcing bar, known as rebar.

Standard’s only job was to make and deliver the girders. It was up to C.W. Matthews and its other sub-contractors to put the pieces together.

“That’s the real key,” Lampton said, “to make it seem like they were all one piece.”

By the week of May 22, traffic was flowing — or not — across the rebuilt section of highway, weeks ahead of schedule.

Standard Concrete went back to its normal business pace, producing girders up to 140-feet long and as much as 140,000 pounds. Standard’s girders are used in in highways and rail work – including projects for MARTA and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport – across the Southeast, but especially here, Lampton said.

“We are the largest bridge provider in Georgia,” he said. “And we probably do about 50 percent of the work in North and South Carolina.”

Standard started in Columbus as a construction company in the late 1800s. It pretty much always produced concrete, but in the mid-1990s, Lampton’s father decided to focus on that part of the business.

Standard, whose main offices are still in Columbus, bought the 20-acre Atlanta property. It also has a facility in Tampa.

The business relies on public infrastructure work — there aren’t many private projects that require beams this big. So when government budgets were shrinking in the aftermath of the 2007-09 recession, business was sort of bleak.

Now, after years of expansion and rising revenues, there are plenty of orders – some for new bridges, some for upgrades of old ones.

Rain stops pours

The work is hard, insistent and outdoors. When it rains, workers don’t pour concrete into the giant forms for girders, but they do pretty much everything else.

The crane operators who move the giant structures – some of them with decades of experience – can make upwards of $50 an hour. The line workers generally make less than half that.

“We hire unskilled workers and train them,” Lampton said. “It’s hard to keep them too long, because they learn skills.”

As he spoke, the men in the yard cut more of the steel strands connecting this latest batch. Sparks flew, there was a sizzling sound and the scent of burning carbon wafted through the wet air.

To make girders that can hold together against their own weight starts with recipes for ever-tougher concrete. But for a girder to also carry roadways and thousands of vehicles on its back needs to be “pre-stressed.”

The embedded steel strands will give these girders that extra strength.

In the Atlanta yard, the strands were pulled impossibly tight before the concrete was poured and they were held in place as the concrete hardened. Now, those steel strands were straining to let go, like a series of impossibly strong rubber bands.

Denser and stronger

When cut, the strands contract slightly, in the process making the concrete denser and stronger and giving each girder a slight bend, or “camber.” In use, the weight of a highway will flatten the girder.

As the Standard crew cut the last strands, the 140-foot girders arched just slightly, groaning as the steel pulled inside them. The sound was low, loud and scary, speaking of forces far beyond the human scale.

And then the sound stopped. But the rain kept spattering down.

A huge yellow crane rolled closer. An expert operator maneuvered, moving the big machine to get the crane’s four hooks waving back and forth until he managed to snag the girder, like a hook and eye game for Goliath.

The machine lifted.

The rain picked up, dousing the gray, 140-foot girder as it swiveled in the air like a 140,000-pound Lego. The yellow crane began to roll away.

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AJC Business reporter Michael E. Kanell keeps you updated on the latest news about jobs, housing and consumer issues in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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