Peter 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
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
"For me, bridges are my life. I dreamed
of being a bridge engineer back when I was in college," Leonard
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
"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
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
The average age of state bridges is 50 to 75
years. There are more than 100 bridges past their prime that need immediate
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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."