Tampa Steel and Erecting Prepared for Repair of the National Infrastructure

Article Originally  on Tampa 2012 Media Center

Five years after the fatal collapse of the Minneapolis’ I-35W Mississippi River Bridge, the safety of bridges across the US remains a pressing national concern. As with the Mississippi River Bridge, the majority of US bridges were built during the highway construction boom of the 1960s. With a typical lifespan of 70 years, many bridges are entering their twilight years. Many won’t last even that long: The I-35 bridge, which opened to the public in 1967, collapsed in its early 40s. The bridge had not been scheduled to be rebuilt until 2020-2025.

“The tragedy emphasized the terrible human cost of bridge failure and raised the general public’s awareness of our nation’s infrastructure’s state,” says Robert “Bob” Clark, Jr., the president of Tampa Steel Erecting Company. Clark joined the company, which his father founded in 1945, as a newly minted civil engineer in 1961. The company specializes in steel building structures, simple steel bridges and major steel bridges.

Clark was drawn to civil engineering and Tampa Steel at a heady time: America was excitedly embracing the opportunities for travel and freedom that the national highway system presented. Clark’s enthusiasm for bridge building hasn’t waned in the intervening years, but it has been informed by a grave reality: The quality and safety of the US infrastructure has become critical to commerce and national defense, as well as travel.

Since then Tampa Steel has fabricated the steel for such projects as the four-span 48th Street Entrance Ramp to FDR Drive in New York City, the Storrow Drive in Boston, Portland Maine’s Casco Drawbridge and Atlanta’s 17th Street Bridge. Non-bridge projects including Epcot Center’s “Spaceship Earth,” the geodisic sphere at Epcot’s entrance; the Florida Aquarium and the 39-story One Tampa Center.

Tampa Steel’s 95 employees work in a 150,000-square-foot facility situated on 25 acres in suburban Tampa. The company receives orders for bridges from all over the country, particularly Northern states. To give a sense of the scale of Tampa Steel’s projects, fabrication for another recent NYC project required 1000 tons of steel components that weight as much as 98 tons each. For Atlanta’s 17th St. Bridge, Tampa Steel cut, shaped and welded the massive steel sheets it purchased from Bethlehem Steel into bridge components, assembled the bridge in its entirety at Tampa Steel’s plant, and then disassembled it for shipment to Atlanta.

While the nation has a long way to go to secure its infrastructure, Clark notes that there have been positive changes on many fronts since the Mississippi River Bridge tragedy in the form of tighter and more frequent inspections and reporting requirements; and commissions and collaborative working groups to examine the short- and long-term effects of time, increased traffic, construction, the environment, and many other stressors, on bridges and the options available to the nation.

“Safety isn’t a partisan issue,” Clark says, even if the issue of how to pay for it is. The American Society of Civil engineers puts a 200 billion price tag on repairing the nation’s bridges, and various entities place the percentage of bridges deficient at 25%. “I think everyone agrees that we have a large and necessary task ahead of us.”