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Construction Science Fiction: The Lake Michigan Causeway

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“Hey, see here—listen to the voice of experience. You can be running this place in five years. Why on earth would you trade that for a chance to build a bridge across Lake Michigan? Like the Chinese say, the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.”

“You know, you are probably right. You have a lot of experience in this industry, and I really have a great deal of respect for your insight. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“There is a lot of environmental opposition to this project.”

“The bridge will save over 600,000 barrels of oil per year and will fund shoreline and lake shore remediation programs.” 

“Don’t bother crawling back in here for a job when you fall on your ass.”

“Thanks for the support, boss. I will be out of the office by nightfall.”

 

Marcia Larsen began her drive north along Lake Michigan in her restored 1967 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and listened carefully to a voice emanating from the heads-up display across her windshield.

“Going to make it to Milwaukee on time?”

She still thought of her father as a young man. She had trouble adjusting to his bald pate and graying beard.

“Only twenty miles to go,” she said.

“Tired?”

“Not really. I had a cup of java before I left.”

“How about breakfast?”

“I’ll stop on the way. Where are we meeting?”

“Pentax Architects. I’ve been here every day for the past three weeks, listening to these amazingly predictable presentations: ‘There are four major types of bridges: beam, span, arch, and cantilevered.’ I hope you have something a bit more interesting in mind.”

Through the open passenger window came the sluice of the tires against the wet pavement, the pungent early-morning smell of the lake. Jolene had always crabbed at Hank for driving with the windows down.

“I guess you’ll be there judge of that,” she said, “given that you are on the board of review.”

“Let me start by describing the challenge before us,” Marcia began. “A bridge traversing from Muskegon, Michigan, to South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, would span over 100 miles of water with depths up to 900 feet and winds of up to 80 mph.

“The bridge must allow safe passage of 300 million tons of passenger and freight transportation per year and must not adversely impact lakeshore bed and shoreline erosion.

“We are proposing a bridge built along the mid-lake plateau composed of two central axes that span the length of the lake and from which wings—or the bridge decks, lightened because of their unique design—stretch out during good weather and fold in during winds above 24.6 mph. The arches will serve a dual purpose: first, to support the bridge deck, and secondly, to support turbine wind towers no closer than 10 miles from shore.”

“Will the bridge hold up during high storms?” asked the CEO of Pentax. He sat on the evaluation committee, which included a design-build CEO, a professor of architectural design from Pitt, the mayor of Milwaukee, and a retired Packers linebacker turned property developer. Hank had recused himself to a seat along the back wall.

“The bridge deck lowers beneath the water line in inclement weather with the use of hydraulic cylinders or arches that extend upward from the lake floor to suspend the bridge deck,” she replied.

“OK, that sounds great,” said the linebacker. “But what happens when my battery runs low halfway across this bridge?

“I am glad you asked that question,” she said. “Toby Mack is here to answer questions on safety and maintenance.” Toby rose from his chair so that they both faced the audience at either side of the podium.

“A sonar wall will prevent you from entering the causeway without a fully charged battery,” he explained. “And solar panels spaced at one kilometer intervals will provide emergency power.

“Corrosion, mechanical deflection, and brittleness sensors across the entire bridge will ensure productive maintenance by welding, metallurgical, and environmental technicians who will be housed in workshops spaced at 25-meter intervals. The workforce will be drawn from the trade schools that now provide us with an abundance of expert welders, machinists, computer scientists, and project planners.”

“I have been studying metallurgy for twenty-five years,” said the professor, who slid a glass of milk back and forth between his hands. “And I have never seen a bridge design more innovative than what you are proposing.” Marcia held her breath, waiting for his next comment. “Nor have I ever seen a design more difficult to maintain.”

The room was silent. The lake reflected the morning sun through the wall-length window, highlighting the Calatrava-designed Art Museum like a jewel on its shore.

“We agree that it will take routine maintenance to scrub the cylinders before actuation. The cylinders will need to be exercised periodically regardless of whether the bridge deck is lower or raised,” she countered. “That’s a lot of people out there in wet suits. But we are confident that graduate metallurgy students from leading academic programs will help us solve this problem.”

The professor smiled as he took a drink of milk and nodded at the CEO of Pentax.

“We appreciate your time and effort in preparing this presentation. We have several more bridge designs to evaluate, and we will contact you within the week.”

The committee clapped politely as Toby and Marcia exited the conference room. Hank intercepted them at the elevator.

“Nice job, I am proud of you both,” he said. He tried for a group hug, but Toby’s reserved nature made it more of a polite tap on the back.

“Hold on, Dad. Before I go, I want to share something with you.”

“What’s that?”

“Remember the first design, the one with the regenerative design?”

“Sure, what about it?”

“That’s the project that Jolene began, five years ago. Do you remember?

“Sure I do. How could I forget? She worked on it for a decade before handing it off to you. Her support has given you all the confidence you need to get this project accomplished.”

They had just 24 hours to solve the toughest mathematical problem related to the final bridge design: how to lighten the deck by 90 percent. Once this was accomplished, their revised bridge design would be complete.

Marcia felt the coolness of the water against her stomach and the pull of her arms propelling her forward across the waves. Toby sat on the beach, crunching numbers on his hand-held Cray.

She recalled a reel of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that Hank had played for her in high school. She replayed his words as she finished her swim and walked up the beach.

“Design the bridge as if your family will cross it.”

A cold wind dusted up from the forest and turned her skin purple with goose bumps. She dove back in the water for another lap.

Back on the beach, the supercomputer performed a computational fluid-dynamic study to evaluate the risks associated with the hydrodynamic performance of the bridge platform.

“That’s it,” said Toby. “A honeycomb design will gets us to our weight target while providing the best road-to-tire traction.”

“How do we concept test?”
“The prototype is already being manufactured. By tomorrow morning, we should have a proof of concept. Then we are ready for the review committee.”

The construction began on West Wisconsin Avenue between Beijing Life and the US Bank building and extended over the Milwaukee shoreline, which was left intact. A lean line forged and machined the billets into arches. A 10,000-pound press, contained in a box the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, began the process, sending the cylinders into the laser-machining process. Process heat was recirculated to power the rock drills, which were used by workers to create the foundation for the piers.

A safety simulator used holographic images to recreate potential accidents scenes so that workers could develop the appropriate muscle memory to navigate safely.

An opening for the first section of the bridge was planned for the Fourth of July. A parade of well-wishers gathered on the bridge before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. By now, Toby and Marcia had put five years into the project.

As they drove across the deck, she thought that she heard Hank on the heads-up display. She climbed out of the car to escape the reporters and politicians and assess the approaching storm, which was already creating whitecaps. The high-school band scattered, pulling towels over their heads and running back to the bus in driving rain. Toby used his handheld to raise the bridge deck above the waves.

“I’ve lost battery power,” he shouted into Marcia’s ear, over the din of the wind and the saves. “We need to get the maintenance crew out here quickly.”

The storm lasted the better part of a week and tested the limits of endurance of the newly constructed bridge.

 

BOWMAN
George Bowman's writing has appeared in The Mergers and Acquisitions Journal - The Association for Corporate Growth, USA Today, the Appleton Post-Crescent, and the Grand Forks Herald, and he has served for twenty-four years at companies that provide tools, equipment, and consumables for the construction industry.  He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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