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Florida bridge collapse: GDOT says Georgia bridges are safe

State transportation officials say Georgia bridges built on an accelerated timeline are safe, despite concerns that have been raised about the collapse of a Florida pedestrian bridge built with similar methods.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has used accelerated construction techniques for several high-profile projects recently – most notably the replacement of a stretch of I-85 in Atlanta that collapsed last year. Replacing that 700-foot span of one of the region’s busiest highways took just six weeks.

Investigators have not determined what caused the bridge at Florida International University to collapse Thursday, killing at least six people. But questions immediately swirled around the construction of the bridge and the accelerated techniques involved.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the construction techniques have been used safely around the world.

“Obviously, something very tragic and very wrong happened in Florida,” she said. “This might be new to Georgia, but this is something that is used nationwide and worldwide with much success.”

“Accelerated bridge construction” is a catch-all term for a variety of processes and techniques that can save time on such projects. The idea is to minimize traffic disruptions brought about by construction-related road closures.

Such techniques have become more common over the last decade. For example, in 2011, Massachusetts replaced 14 bridges over 10 weekends.

In Florida, the 174-foot main span of the pedestrian bridge was constructed alongside a local street and then lowered into place last Saturday. The bridge was not open to the public when it fell — construction began last spring and was expected to continue through early next year.

When the span fell, it buried numerous vehicles beneath 950 tons of rubble.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse. But the agency can’t begin a full inspection until emergency workers finish recovering the bodies of those who perished.

Dale stressed the unknown cause of the accident when responding to questions about the safety of Georgia bridges.

“Could this happen in Georgia?” she said. “We still don’t know what ‘this’ is.”

When the northbound lanes of I-85 collapsed near Piedmont Road last March 30, the agency offered contractor C.W. Matthews a $3.1 million incentive to finish the project early.

Dozens of employees worked around the clock – allowing them to perform a variety of tasks simultaneously. The contractor also used expensive quick-curing concrete to speed construction.

Dale said the bridge construction project here most similar to the Florida project was the replacement of the Ga. 299 bridge over I-24 in Dade County in northwest Georgia. Last summer, GDOT demolished the old bridge and set the new one in place in a weekend. But construction of the new bridge had gone on for seven months by the time it was set in place.

GDOT also has used similar methods to replace Atlanta’s Courtland Street Bridge, from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to Gilmer Street, and I-285 bridges at Buford Highway and U.S. 41.

Dale said GDOT closely monitors construction. For the I-85 project, inspectors worked round-the-clock alongside the contractor.

“We are very confident in our bridge-inspection process here in Georgia,” she said. “We are very confident in our bridge program.”

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