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"That bridge, at the time, was one of the first in the country to be that innovative."

Montoya analyzes each eating utensil he loads into the dishwasher at his Denver home.

He places heavy stoneware toward the back of the tray, plastic containers toward the front, large glasses toward the back, smaller ones toward the front.

Thinking efficiently is as natural as breathing for this structural engineer, who designs bridges for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

He just can't help himself.

"It's my training," Montoya says. "It affects my thoughts."

So it goes for the life of structural engineers tasked with safely connecting our world. Be it the Brooklyn Bridge, which connects two parts of a great city; the Dabar Bridge, used in World War II in the fight against fascism; or the new Conifer Town Center bridge, which will soon provide access to a new Safeway Lifestyles store.

But it's safe to say these masterminds and their behemoth creations are an underappreciated bunch. All the more reason to recognize both maker and structure here.

Mark Leonard is one such man. He leads CDOT's bridge department.

"For me, bridges are my life. I dreamed of being a bridge engineer back when I was in college," Leonard says.

Apparently, he couldn't live in a better state to do so.

"Colorado is one of the most interesting places to be doing bridge engineering," he said. "Some of the most innovative bridge engineering work has occurred by virtue of some talented engineers and the department's openness to innovative technology."

"Innovative" being the operative word, Leonard is quick to point out-regularly.

Get a load of what these engineers and their predecessors have produced.

There are roughly 8,000 bridges in Colorado; about half of those are owned by the state, the other half by cities and counties.

To put things in local perspective, there are a dozen bridges in a 20-mile stretch of U.S. 285 from C-470 to Richmond Hill Road.

The average age of state bridges is 50 to 75 years. There are more than 100 bridges past their prime that need immediate replacement.

That explains the major construction under way on U.S. 285 near Morrison, where two deteriorating bridges are being rebuilt. That project will be finished around September 2007.

Stay with us here, it gets more interesting up aheadafter a few more painful reminders of how much its costs us mere mortals to move about.

To replace all bridges past their prime in the state would cost about $800 million, Leonard said. But CDOT's annual funds earmarked for replacement and rehabilitation total only about $30 million a year.

To underscore how daunting that is, consider the 46th Avenue viaduct in Denver that serves six lanes of traffic and feeds the main Interstate 70 artery. That bridge is over a mile long and is "falling apart."

Leonard has heard rough estimates of $500 million to replace it.

Considering the entire CDOT budget is only $1 billion a year, that wish could take awhile to fulfill. In the meantime, it will cost about $20 million to shore it up for safety.

Yeah, it's a little wasteful, but what else can they do?

It's not often easy to let an old bridge go.

In the mid-1970s, so many bridges were being replaced across the country that historic preservationists got involved. They lobbied for better planning and protection of irreplaceable examples of the history of American engineering.

It was just 22 years ago, in 1984, that CDOT contracted to conduct its first historic bridge inventory. The project took two years and covered four categories of design: trusses, arches, concrete girders and steel girders.

As it turns out, there are 217 bridges in the state eligible for or listed on the National Register of Historic Placessix of which are in Jefferson County.

As useful as they are to transport people from one location to another, some bridges are a dead end for those who have reached the end of the line.

A bridge in Douglas County became known as the "suicide bridge" when CDOT officials noticed too many deaths at one overpass.

The combination of a steep hill, and a bridge that had a nice curve in it, gave folks a chance to reach an acceleration of about 95 mph before they launched themselvesThelma-and-Louise-styleoff the side of it.

It happened seven times before CDOTscratching its head at the possible reasonsgot wind of a plausible explanation from a teen, who knew a friend who had … well, you get the picture. A concrete barrier proved a tidy solution.

Some engineers are cautious about putting their peers on a pedestal.

"Most bridge engineers are not really exciting people," said Bill Scheuerman, an engineer tasked with overseeing the construction of highways and bridges in CDOT's region 1. "If you think Mark Leonard is exciting, I want you to call me right away, 'cause that's news right there."

Scheuerman considers himself among the dull.

"Did you see the 'Bridges of Madison County?' " he asks. "I thought the best part of the whole story was the love storyand I hate love stories."

Nonetheless, it is no secret that Scheuerman speaks fondly of the new bridge rising on Richmond Hill. It's a "designer bridge," he will tell you, designed by none other than Peter Montoyathe obsessively efficient dishwasher stackerand another fellow named Dr. Trevor Wang.

Mention that bridge to Leonard, and he gets excited too. For those of you who are interested, it has slanted legs (peers) and pre-cast box girders with a pre-cast deck, whereas most slanted legs in the country are made of steel. (It also has three spans-meaning there are three parts to it, one on each end from earth to peer and one in the middle.)

"It's a 'one of a kind'we are all so innovative here at CDOT," Leonard said.

Scheuerman remembers one bridge (may it rest in peace) that went up in smoke when flames from a grass fire slapped the sides of the old-timer, which was built of timbers in the 1930s, and it fell to the ground.

Then there are the quickie bridges that rise so swiftly you'll toot your horn at the sight of them. One of those was built in Douglas County in 36 hours from start to finish from prefabricated pieces, built off site, and pieced together like a puzzle. (Yes, we know, contractors, besides engineers, played a critical role in that dazzling feat.)

And how about that triple bridge experiment in Clear Creek Canyon West of Golden? That encompassed the rehabilitation of three nasty old steel bridges in a whopping 12 days with prefabricated materialsthe same innovative materials being use on Richmond Hill.

Let's face it, people, some bridges are more beautiful than others are, and one such beauty is in our own backyard.

Bridge engineers consider the bridge over Interstate 70 at Genesee near Evergreen one of the most beautiful spans in the U.S.

There are the views: the bridge frames spectacular mountain peaks for westbound traffic, and for eastbounders, it frames the city of Denver. But there's more.

The award-winning design of the bridge, built in 1970, is a major accomplishment.

"It's a very efficient, low-cost, clean structurethere is no gingerbread on it," Leonard said.

"Gingerbread: refers to fancy rails, fences and stone work that can look a little like a carnival, he explained.

But not this sleek, thin, single-span masterwork designed by Frank Lundberg that has been copied several times in other states.

"When I came to work here, I sat next to the white-haired man," Leonard said of Lundberg. "He was a very wise engineer, a wonderful person.

"That bridge, at the time, was one of the first in the country to be that innovative."

Bridges become landmarks for communities. They appear on napkins, in brochures; they are used for directions and are given nicknames.

"We may not have some of the biggest bridges, like the Golden Gate or Skyway in Florida," Leonard said. "But the bridges and retaining walls we build are really innovative."

One might respectfully ask why the bridges along U.S. 285 have little continuity to them? The eclectic mix consists of concrete-stamped bridges that resemble painted cinderblock (the Wolffe overpass in Aspen Park) to those touched by the hand of artists who painted large boulders on the side of them (the Pleasant Park underpass in Conifer).

The answer, according to CDOT, is simply "the continuing attempt to come up with very attractive structures that hopefully supplement or blend in with the beauty of the site."

Whew, that was a mouthful.

Another one of those, unrelated to CDOT, is the new Conifer Town Center Bridge at Light Lane-a $3.5 million affair built by a private contractor set to open Nov. 17.

What about that stainless steel sign mounted on it? The one that faces both directions but is only located on half of the bridge, making it appear a little off-center? It was part of the engineers' designs, a representative of that project said.

Engineersplease be kind when you think of them, for they provide some facsimile of structure to our otherwise mobile existence.

You might as well know that Peter Montoya can't move a chair in his office without first contemplating the chair's center of gravity. Then there is his own center of gravity; if he picks the chair up in just the right place in relation to the position of his legs, it's easier to move.

He can't help himself.

"I think the main inspiration for bridges comes from that training," Montoya said. "Once in a long while it's nice to hear someone thank you for making a bridge safely."
































































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