(Artvoice 27 October 1999)


The Man who Loves Bridges:
A Conversation With Eugene C. Figg, Jr.

By Bruce Jackson
 

Eugene Figg, Jr., loves bridges. His company, the Figg Engineering Group, of Tallahassee, Florida, is the only national engineering firm in America that does nothing but bridges. He loves to talk about the bridges heís built, how theyíre faring, how the people who own them feel about them now.

Heís proud of the ones that came in early and under budget (like the Natchez Trace Parkway Arches, budgeted for $15 million, brought in for $11 million). Heís equally proud of the ones that won major design awards. The National Endowment for the Arts began giving Presidential Design Awards in 1984. A total of 41 awards have been given, only five for bridges, and Figg got three of those: Lin Cove Viaduct in North Carolina (1984), Sunshine Sky Bridge in Florida (1988) and the Natchez Trace Parkway Arches in Tennessee (1995). Figgís pride in his bridges doesnít come off like vanity; itís more like a parent talking to anyone whoíll listen about a child who is doing well in the world.

He was in Buffalo last week for a conference of the Association for Bridge Construction and Design, where he spoke about bridge permitting and community involvement issues, and about the community design charettes for which he has become famous. He also managed to talk with a good number of people involved in the Peace Bridge expansion: Buffalo Development Commissioner Joseph Ryan, Common Council President James Pitts, the Buffalo News editorial board, the Public Bridge Review Panelís Technical Review Subcommittee, and about 75 people at DíYouville College, a meeting incorporated into one of the New Millennium Groupís informational sessions.

We talked for about an hour on Friday morning. His enthusiasm, energy, experience and creative approach to the world of bridges reminded me that building a bridge doesnít have to be about institutional ego, ratification of sunk costs, political favors, money-grubbing, international rivalry, local second-ratism, and blind service to distant masters. Heís convinced that Fort Erie and Buffalo can have, in a reasonable time, a bridge system that works, that serves us, that makes us feel good.

Here are parts of our conversation:

Youíve been to Buffalo several times now. Whatís of particular interest about this project?

This is definitely an opportunity for Buffalo to make a statement about the city. Itís an opportunity really to do something nice. Youíre building a bridge for a hundred years, youíre going to see this bridge for a hundred years, so it needs to be the best you can get. It needs to be a piece of art.

And the construction will employ a lot of people. If it ends up being a concrete bridge there will be even more people employed right here in Buffalo and in Canada because the contractor will make all of this concrete right here. The contractors that build a bridge like this will come in with a small group of their own people and the rest will be hired locally. The work will be right at the site, or close to the site, it will all be right here. It will employ local people.

How did you get interested in the Peace Bridge?

I got a call from Jack Cullen with SuperSpan Niagara, maybe two years ago. He said there was a bridge that they needed some help with. He found out about what I doĖexclusively design bridgesĖand he wanted me to come and talk to him about it. I asked him to send me some information. Iím always interested in bridges. At the same time a man named Stewart Watson called me to talk about the bridge. Stewart Watson was the owner of Watson-Bowman, which made bridge bearings and expansion joints. Iíve known and have been friends with Stewart for 25 or  30 years.

When I had both these people calling I knew there was something happening in Buffalo. So I came and found out about the project. They set up a number of meetings for me to talk to different people. And it worked. The chemistry worked and itís something I want to do.

Youíve visited the site. What do you think about it?

It looks to me like the bridge should be moved to a better location so you can build a plaza thatís going to last for a hundred years. The one they have now, the areaís too small and itís going to be a big problem, it looks like to me, for the city to be able to do all the things needed to do in that spot. So that really hurts people.

What would you do with the plaza?

I would move it. I would move it so that you can get it into a location where you can really design something. The plaza should be an award-winning design also. The plaza should be something that really belongs to the city. Whatever happens there should be something the people would really enjoy having rather than something thatís just functional for the bridge itself.

The bridge authority people say, ĎWeíve spent $15 million developing our design. How can somebody come in and quickly come up with a better design, more quickly?í What do you say to that?

I havenít any idea what they did. I just know that you could build a brand-new bridge of six lanes for about $90 million and it would take about five years from the time you started with the design and environmental documents to when it was completed. I have no idea what they did for $15 million.

Letís leave them out. Can you talk a little bit about the timeline for the bridge and the timeline for the plaza?

They both would be on the same timeline. The bridge and the plaza, the whole thing would have to be finished in about five years. The five years would include the fact that youíve got some environmental documents youíve got to get approved, but you would work on that simultaneously with the design phase of the work. And then the construction phase would be included. But the plaza needs to be done exactly the same time as the bridge. It has to be one unit.

Can you come into a place where you havenít been and get up to speed quickly enough to get it done in five years?

Sure we can. We work all over the country. Weíve worked in 30 states. We have work in New York City right now, two major projects for the Port Authority. One is 8.7 miles of elevated structures for mass transit for JFK airport thatís under construction. Itís a $100 million project. The other is a bridge we designed to Staten Island, a cable-stayed bridge. Weíre about 30% finished with it. They stopped the project temporarily but theyíll come back and that bridge will be built. That project is about $150 million total. We have $185 million under construction in Boston right now. Another $46 million bridge being built in Maine.

So we worked all over the country and so thereís no problem with going quick. Weíre bridge people. We understand bridges. We understand what it takes to design one, what it takes to get the environmental documents done.

We have about 90 people. Weíre doing about $1.4 billion either under construction or in design. As far as I know, weíre the only firm in America that designs just bridges. So we can be highly specialized and this is why we do varying types of things. We even do the financing of bridges. Just like the Ambassador group: we could come in and do the same thing they do. We have several bridgesĖwe donít own the bridges but we help finance them and develop them for authorities, small authorities. We just finished one in Pensacola, Florida, $96 million. The bonds were sold by Paine-Webber. It an 18,425-foot-long  bridge. It was finished in 29 months, one month ahead of schedule. At one point we did seven spans in seven days. 980 feet a week.

How do you do that?

Itís a system. Itís our design system at work. Right now at JFK Airport where weíre doing that 8.7 miles of elevated structure, we have to build in the existing median and the existing shoulder, thatís all we have to work with to build an elevated bridge to take care of the mass transit. We have four trusses working while the projectís going on, and the contractor is building 800 or 880 feet a week on those bridges. The project has 5195 segments on it and all the segments are being made down in the southern part of Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, by Bayshore Concrete. Theyíre barged up and then theyíre put on trucks and brought from New Jersey to JFK Airport. Itís a process. Itís going on right now, as we speak, constantly bringing these up, and theyíre probably building today three or four spans. Itís the system that works. The system becomes kind of monolithic, it becomes almost seamless. It all goes together. And you donít have to interrupt traffic either. We would never interrupt boat traffic or vehicle traffic.

Could you talk about the way you work, this process of how you involve the community and what that does to the timeline?

We call them design charettes. The bottom line is, it saves time because it comes to closure quicker on what the bridge should look like. And it also unifies the community so they are focused on a conclusion and then support the design the rest of the way. So it saves time. It takes approximately six months from the time we have notice to proceed to be able to conclude the design charette.

The process is to have the customerówhoever that may beóand ourselves work together on discerning how many people we think ought to be involved. The most Iíve done is a hundred. Itís been anywhere from 25 to 100. I like it in the range of 75, because you want a good cross-section. I ask them to inviteĖletís just say weíre going to have 100ĖI want to invite 300 people they think are the best cross section. And the first 100 that respond and say that ďI can spend two days with Gene Figg and his staff initially and one day about eight weeks laterĒ then become voting members of the design charette. I want that to be a cross section. I would like to have the press there. I prefer two newspapers because if you have two newspapers, then you get the right story. I like to have all the other media involved if theyíll do it.

We spend approximately five to six hours up front educating the people as to what theyíre getting ready to do, helping them learn as many things as they can about bridges. If itís a bridge over water, we want to take a boat ride and get them really focused on it. Even though theyíve seen this area a lot, they need to focus for this day or two days on what would be the best bridge for that site. Then we vote on a number of elements. We vote on span lengths, we vote on the shapes of the piers, on lighting, landscaping, everything. We vote on maybe 75 or 80 items, but not all at one time. Usually the first vote happens about one or two oíclock in the afternoon on the first day.

The voting process is on a one-to-ten scale. Itís a consensus vote. If you like something a lot, you vote a ten or eight or nine. If you donít like it at all you vote below five. If they donít have any opinion they give it a five; if they donít vote we give it a five. Five is a neutral vote. Itís not a yes or no, itís not a beauty contest, itís really about the things that can be achieved.Within a few minutes after a vote is finished, we electronically give them the average. Some item might be a 7.6 or a 3.2. in the vote of all 75 people. We work with everything thatís above five.

We have two hand-held mikes. Only one person can talk at a time. We have lots of conversation. And lots of displays in the room of all the things theyíre going to vote on. Thereíll be lighting displays with different kinds of lighting options. This gives them a chance to learn before they vote.

The best part about the voting process with the community is, when we vote even if we donít win, we accept what happens. Even if people are on the losing side of a vote, they become advocates like everybody else after a few votes.

About eight weeks after weíve had this two-day session we come back with a design that fits the things that they want. Then we can take the whole design to a public meeting of maybe three or four hundred people, and now weíve got fifty to seventy-five advocates who can answer most of the questions that are asked by the rest of the public that comes, instead of us as engineers answering it. Theyíll give the reason why a certain choice was made because they were part of the decision.

The process has worked every time weíve done it.

How many times have you done it?

I have no idea. We started this in Ď88, Ď89.  We use the process for more than just designing signature bridges. We do it for location studies, a lot of different things. But for the bridges, most of we do is for the bridge designs themselves at difficult locations where people have strong opinions one way or another what a bridge should look like. You get it done quicker because you come to a conclusion, instead of it dragging out for years with people taking shots at a design all the time. You bring it to conclusion because theyíve actually voted. And no one else in America is doing this, weíre the only ones doing this.

Do you come in with a range of designs and options? Is that the starting point? Or do you talk first and then come in with the options?

We only offer to the people what they can have in the way of the budget. We always start out with the budget and we always start out with those things that are the parts of the project that canít be changed, such as a vertical clearance of a channel, horizontal width to a channel, any number of things that canít be changed. We work diligently to give the people those options that will fit that particular site. Some sites, theyíre too small, you canít put in a cable-stayed bridge or something like that, or an arch, or you canít afford it. In some cases, maybe itís a different type of long span that needs to be used. So all these things are studied. But only what can be afforded.

We donít come in with any preconceived design. We know what will work at that site. We spend that time up front before we have the first meetings. We bring those things that can work at the site. Weíre not coming in with a predetermined idea what the bridge should look like. But we have an idea of a number of things that can be achieved at that site. Itís the details and the way you put it together that makes an award-winning bridge. Thatís why we won 124 design awards and three Presidential awards.

But Iíve heard that you have sketches for what might be done here.

I wanted to confirm what the costs would be, so we made about six different conceptual ideas to try to confirm the costs. I wanted to be sure we were talking about something that was feasible. So we did about six different ways you could build or design the bridge. There are other ways. When we did a cost estimate on each one of them they all came in this range of about $85 to $100 million.

I do this everywhere we go. I donít want to come in and say we can do a bridge and it doesnít fit the budget or doesnít fit the conditions. Itís just sketches so far because itís not time to design it yet. You first have to do the sketches and make sure weíre in the ballpark and then find out what the customer wants before we start designing it.

The primary situation here is that you have a chance to build or design a really outstanding structure. This structure is something that will be in Buffalo for a hundred years. Itís a chance not just to get a bridge but an award-winning bridge, a bridge that probably will be revered by lots of people for a long period of time. If you just do that and not look for the ordinary, this could be an important part of the skyline.

Some people have worried about a huge pylon competing with the cityís skyline.

I donít think itís an issue because thatís just one of the ways you can design this bridge. With a cable-stayed bridge, the reason for the height of the pylon is the span length. Itís a direct ratio: the longer the span length, the higher the pylon. We have some unique pylons that are really very small, very slender, even with a long span.

One of the design elements in this bridge that needs to be considered is the fact that you have the water moving fast. You want to have it unrestricted as much as possible. It costs more to build in the water. A new bridge could certainly have fewer piers than they have in the present bridge. Probably you could even design it with two piers in the water, thatís one of the concepts we worked on. But that may be too severe, it may be three in the water.

Youíve met the Bridge Authority. Do you see any particular problems with this approach here?

I have not met the Bridge Authority. I made a presentation to some of them, but it wasnít to the whole Authority. It was to staff and some Authority members two or three years ago. It was just an information meeting. Thatís as much as Iíve done there. Itíll work anywhere. The process will work anywhere. Buffalo or St. Paul, Minnesota, or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It works anywhere.

Have you done bridges in the north?

Sure. I have bridges in Maine. I have one that was built in í83 in Maine. Itís in great shape today. We have one under construction in Boston, We have St. Paul, Minnesota, which has almost as severe a climate as you have in Buffalo.

Worse.

Or worse.

Itís right in the center of the city and it crosses the Mississippi. That bridge is excellent. Itís an excellent bridge, an excellent location. We worked all through the winter with no problems. With our designs, you can work all year around. That makes them interesting. That bridge is right IN the downtown. We have major sidewalks on it because you walk across it. There are high banks and theyíre trying to rejuvenate that part of St. Paul, downtown, and theyíre doing a good job of it. But they do have flooding that occurs there, so itís designed to deal with that. It was just a super job.

[He shows me photos of projects in a 1999 company calendar and says, as he turns the pages:]

This is as close as weíve gotten to a brochure. We should do a brochure. Thereís never been enough time.

óThis is a bridge in Dauphin Island, Alabama, completed in 1982. A great project. I visited it about a year ago. Itís in terrific condition. Itís a 400' span. It was to replace the bridge that hurricane Frederick knocked out in 1979. They hired us immediately to redesign another bridge for them. We did the whole project in thirty months. It was a great project.

óHereís one place we built right over the traffic. Itís the Hanging Lake Viaduct in Glenwood Canyon. Thereís the traffic right underneath the bridge. Thatís the only place you could put the traffic. So we built it above. Once we got it finished, the traffic went on top. The most we ever stopped the traffic was about thirty minutes during each of those times we jacked up the pier. You have to be versatile. You have to be very versatile.

óThis is a 400' span in Charleston, South Carolina. Hurricane Hugo ran right on top. Weíve had our bridges hit by eight hurricanes and no problems with any of them. And two tornadoes.

óThis is a cable-stayed bridge in Columbia, South America that this year in January was hit by a Richter scale measurement of six, acceleration factor of point two-nine. Everything around it was almost totaled.  But there was no damage to this bridge. So as far as I know we have the only cable-stayed bridge thatís ever been through an earthquake.

---This is the Wiscasset Bridge, completed in Ď83, between the cities of Wiscasset and Edgecomb, Maine. Itís right on the coast on the Sheepscot river. Very severe environment. More severe than Buffalo, much more. Itís a terrific bridge.

Itís beautiful.

Itís not a big bridge, but it works fine and the people love it. They love that bridge. Itís no maintenance. Itís a very interesting project. We sent people up there and they talked to the people who maintain the bridge and theyíre like the Maytag guy.

Weíre almost passionate when it comes to talking about bridges.

It seems like youíre having a great deal of fun.

If youíre not having fun you shouldnít be in the business. You should try another business.

My colleague Robert Creeley has a poem that begins, ďIf it isinít fun, donít do it. Youíll have to do enough that isnít.Ē

We love bridges. What we really want is getting them built. We like our bridges built. Thatís the key. Weíre not interested in just designing things and have them never be built. We want them built. Thatís been our focus, really: to build bridges that win awards and are economical all at the same time. Anybody can build something that costs a lot of money. But you have to build it so itís within a budget. And thatís what we do. In fact, most of our bridges are built at least costs because weíre competing with another design. The Skyway was in competition with another design. The Chesapeake-Delaware Canal Bridge, we were competing on that project with a cable-stayed bridge against a steel design. Our design was ten percent less. It saved $6 million on the design alone. And then it won a lot of awards too.

And we want it to live a hundred years, so we do ownerís manuals. Like you buy a car you get an ownersí manual, right? You get our bridge, you get an ownersí manual, and you find out how to take care of it. We design it so you can inspect all of it easily. You can inspect every piece of our bridge. Itís easy to inspect it, itís easy to maintain it. Thatís another important part of what weíre doing. I want it to be there a long time. Much longer than me.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

bridge articles page
recent articles page
bruce jackson homepage
email:bjackson@buffalo.edu