Friday, February 1, 2013

Bridge Designer Earns Fitting Tribute

In recent years, our state has named bridges for people. Personally, I would never want a bridge named for me. When bad things happen to a bridge, the name sticks. Forever.

Do you remember the Silver Bridge? Or how about "Galloping Gertie"? You wouldn't remember them if they did not have names.

I can see the news report about my named bridge. "The David G. Allen Bridge collapsed today as a result of corrosion of the suspension cables caused by years and years of bird dropping accumulation. Engineers for the West Virginia Division of Highways reported that they believe Mr. Allen's middle name is ‘Guano.' A spokesman for the division said, ‘We thought it was a gesture of honor to name a guano-covered bridge after Mr. David Guano Allen for his past service as assistant highway commissioner.'"

After all these years of naming bridges for people, the state has finally gotten it right.

Recently, the Goff Plaza Bridge in Clarksburg was re-named for the late John C. Giese. Mr. Giese was a civil engineer who designed some 600 highway bridges in West Virginia during his six-decade career.

There is only one drawback in naming a bridge for Mr. Giese. The bar has now been set about a mile higher than anyone else can jump. So who do you honor from this point forward? For that matter, how do you reconcile the selection criteria for past honorees once John Giese's reputation enters the mix?

John Giese designed the Goff Plaza Bridge in the early 1980s. The bridge is a tribute to John's engineering skill as well as his common sense. The Goff Plaza Bridge represents the best mix of form and function that I have ever seen. John Giese did not design bridges to flatter his ego. He designed bridges that were uncomplicated and cost-efficient to build.

The original Goff Plaza Bridge was a long span over Elk Creek and its flood plain. When John was asked to submit a design to replace the bridge, he did what no other modern engineer would do. He proposed shortening the new bridge by half and building an earthen fill and roadway to span the void.

It's much cheaper to build an earth fill than it is to build a concrete and steel bridge. By doing this, John saved the taxpayers some $500,000. Perhaps the savings were even more. But you get the picture.

Of course, it follows that John got a smaller paycheck for his work. Engineering design fees are based on a project's cost. But that was John. Over the years, he saved us millions of dollars.

For a design engineer, John Giese had a remarkable keenness for understanding the construction process. When he designed a foundation slab, he understood that the major cost in pouring concrete is the labor needed to build forms and tie the reinforcing steel bars.

I used to enjoy watching John critique another engineer's fancy footer plans. He usually drew a rectangle around the whole footer area and would say, "Build it this way." Yes, his plan required more concrete. But the cost of extra concrete was always less than building complicated forms. Besides, more concrete makes a stronger foundation. Which is, after all, the purpose of the foundation.

John Giese never designed the biggest bridge in West Virginia. Nor the longest. Nor did he design bridges that appear on postage stamps and quarters. He designed the most important bridges — the ones that get you to and from your home every day.

He designed a lot of the bridges that we take for granted. And we'll always be able to take them for granted as long as the highway department inspects and maintains them.

For the record, I was assistant highway commissioner when the John Charles Giese Memorial Bridge was built. And my middle name is not Guano.