Not Just Another Bridge Down

David Huey | September 28, 2010

The demolition of the Noland Road Bridge over I-70 just west of Kansas City, Missouri, was supposed to begin at 2 a.m. on Saturday, February 16. Traffic was going to be routed through the east-bound and west-bound on/off ramps with exiting not an option, but by 3 a.m. the heavy traffic was still rumbling under the bridge. The waste of time is crucial – I-70 has to be clean and ready for Monday morning rush-hour traffic. When you need to bring down a four-lane interstate overpass in 18 hours, you really like to have every possible hour.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol was doing its best to slow the traffic down and divert it, but it was a slow process. Finally, the interstate travelers were using the on and off ramps, carefully monitored by the patrol and Independence police to keep their speed to a safe 45 mph.

The general contractor for the bridge replacement, APAC-Kansas, Inc., Kansas City Division, gave the OK to Greg Bair of Greg Bair Track Hoe Service, Inc., to start working. A dozen or so trackhoes and excavators, mounted with breakers, crushers, buckets and cutters, went to work.

With Allman Bros. Night-Lite Pro light towers blazing, a team of breakers attacked the western guard rail. Rubble began to fall to the interstate below. Bair was starting on another bridge demolition. As founder, owner and president, you might have thought that he had better things to do than personally direct the work. The fact was, he was working as hard as his crew (if not harder), being everywhere and seeing everything.

Bair started Greg Bair Trackhoe Service by himself back in 1992 with a used 1984 Drott trackhoe. He built his business over the years, getting more jobs and adding equipment. He kept the old Drott for years, before finally selling it a few years ago. He admits that he held onto it for "sentimental value." It was "my baby," he’ll tell you. He sold it to a contractor near the Lake of the Ozarks, and sounds obviously pleased that he still sees it sometimes when he gets down that way.

Trackhoes are his primary equipment. He now has a broad range of trackhoes and attachments that can be matched to each job. His general trackhoe fleet ranges in size from 150’s (35,000 pound Class) to 400’s (100,000 pound Class). He most recently purchased a new SK 295 Kobelco trackhoe to bring his fleet up to 21. He had it delivered directly to the Noland Road Bridge job with less than 12 hours of break-in time. He mounted a rented Atlas Copco breaker on it and put it to work.

Bair purchased the 295 and rented the breaker from his local equipment dealership, Precision Tractor & Equipment, of Grandview, Missouri. Jeff Keeling, owner/vice president of Precision, has been doing business with Bair for years, and knows him well. He’s sold Bair five new Kobelcos and several used trackhoes.

Keeling remarked, "He just seems to pick up good used equipment with low hours. Some guy who’s short of cash will call Greg up and say, ‘Hey, man, I can’t make my payments – take them over and it’s yours.’ So he gets a near-new piece of equipment and helps a friend out. He has a really good reputation from guys in the business and contractors."

Precision is a family-run business. Jeff Keeling’s brother, Pat, works in the parts department. "He likes to stay behind the counter," Keeling remarked. Their father, Frank, "likes to be a sort of director, running things. And I’m the field guy."

In the field indeed – he was at the bridge demolition from 11:30 Friday night until about 5:00 the next morning. He thought the toughest part of that job, and many others, is

"A lot of things are going on at once," he observed. "Equipment is moving around, right next to each other. Breakers up top and crushers down below, and Greg seeing and running it all." And about putting that brand new 295 to work breaking?

"Usually, Greg will put a bucket on a new piece of equipment for a couple hundred hours of digging and clean up, to break it in. But he needed it there that night, so there it went. He is one of the best of people – honest, fair – and if he tells you he’s going to do something, he does it. There’s nobody like him," he concluded.

All this would embarrass Bair – Keeling says he’s one who doesn’t like to "toot his own horn."

By 5:00 in the morning, Bair is too busy assigning his equipment, solving problems and letting his crew do their job to care about self promotion. His radio squawks, and he leaves the bridge and makes his way to the roadway. One of the excavators has a broken hydraulic line. Fortunately, Bair keeps one service vehicle in his fleet and with the tight scheduling, he has a crane-mounted service vehicle standing by. The repairs are made quickly, and the machine is back in service, moving debris.

Despite the hour, onlookers are on both sides of the bridge. It should come as no surprise: The bridge has been around since 1963 and connects the south and north sides of Independence. After 45 years of continuous use with an average of about 28,000 vehicles per day, it’s no wonder it has deteriorated so much.

The original two-lane structure had a 52-foot-wide bridge deck that was widened in 1977 to an 81-foot-wide four-lane bridge deck. The new bridge will be a two-span (each 90-foot-wide) continuous steel girder bridge with a 102-foot bridge deck, allowing for eight traffic lanes. It will take about three months to complete. Until then, residents will need to drive several miles in either direction to get to the other side of town.

At least the on and off ramps will be open. With work progressing through the night, traffic is speeding up the north-side off ramp, passing between reflective barricade fences, and racing down the on ramp. Spectators can watch both the traffic whipping by and the work going on beyond the opposite safety fence.

At one time, a driver seems determined to get off I-70 here. He stops, right signal blinking, yelling at one of Bair’s men to move the fence, unaware or uncaring that he could be rear ended at any moment. When he realizes he’s not passing the barricade, he makes one final gesture and drives off. East and west of the demolition, highway patrol and police vehicles are stopping drivers exceeding the 45 mph speed limit – doubtlessly fined double for speeding in a work zone.

The sky is getting less dark, though there’s no sun to be seen. Now that you can see the entire bridge, you can see how much of it has been torn down and hauled away. Another APAC truck is loaded with debris and hauls it away to Wil-Stor, Inc. construction landfill at nearby Sugar Creek, Missouri. The concrete will be crushed and stored till Wil-Stor can sell it as aggregate for road base or to asphalt plants. Bair’s crews are loading rebar into their own trucks. They’ll finish cutting it up and sell it for scrap.

There are more spectators now and film crews from nearly every television station in the Kansas City area. There are more clouds now, and the weather forecast is not good. A major storm is on the way, bringing heavy rain to Central Missouri, with ice and snow farther to the north. Mother Nature is imposing her own deadline.

The Bair and APAC crews are quickly reducing the bridge to a pile of broken and crushed concrete and rebar. Despite the late start, Dave O’Dell, APAC’s project superintendent, had to be pleased. APAC vice president, Scott Gammon, P.E., noted that "without the time constraints it would have been a simple bridge demolition."

Greg Bair might disagree. He’s done bridge demolitions from I-95 in Georgia on the East Coast to an I-10 bridge in Pensacola, Florida, to cleanup after 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, and left after the I-70 demolition in Independence to work on a big project on Lake Pontchartrain (I-10, not the Causeway).

Interestingly, he’s done demolitions no further west than West Kansas and only about 20 miles north of Kansas City. His bread-and-butter demolitions are rarely longer than 100 feet to 200 feet, but he gets calls about bridges up to 3,900 feet (the New Orleans’ job). Whatever job he does, he gives it his all – and that encourages his crews to give him their best, too.

The Noland Road I-90 Bridge demolition ended at 3 a.m. Sunday morning. They had technically finished the demolition around 3:00 Saturday afternoon. It had been raining then and continued to rain for about eight hours as Bair and one of his guys sat in his truck, waiting for some equipment to arrive. It’s typical Bair – being the last one off the site.

Bair trusts Kobelco trackhoes, and Paul Golevicz, the brand manager for Kobelco and New Holland excavators. Golevicz might have be exaggerating a little when he remarked that Bair did about 20 to 24 bridge demolitions a year, "getting them solely on his reputation" without really needing to submit a bid.

Jeff Keeling was skeptical, saying that Bair "had a really good rep, but money matters. He knew his work and he was very fair. He picked a number and his clients trusted it was right on."

One story that Kobelco’s Golevicz told about Bair takes place while the two of them were meeting.

"Greg took a call from a customer from the East Coast. The guy was asking Greg about a SK 480. After hearing what Greg had to say about the Kobelco, the guy bought the machine without even looking at it, all on Greg’s recommendation."

The Noland Road job wasn’t just another bridge down, and Greg Bair is not just another demolition contractor. 

Editor’s note: Midwest Contractor magazine would like to thank Greg Bair, his crew and the other subcontractors who were not mentioned by name but provided information or otherwise assisted in the writing of this article. A special thanks to the general contractor, APAC-Kansas, Inc., Kansas City Division, and the APAC project personnel, for opening the work site to photographers and writers.

Scott Gammon, P.E. Vice-President

Matt Stuart, P.E. Project Manager

David Cockrum General Superintendent

David O’Dell Project Superintendent