Another T-town builds a bridge

As Tacoma awaits the opening of a spectacular new bridge, Toledo, Ohio, does, too. But there, the hopes are higher and the human costs greater.

June 10, 2007 

TOLEDO, Ohio – At precisely 10 p.m., the center pylon of Toledo’s new bridge lights up and fireworks erupt around it, sending sprays of fire into the night sky.

On board the riverboat Detroit Princess, floating on the Maumee River below, more than 1,000 people raise their glasses and cheer. Some hug and wipe away tears. Others raise both arms, palms forward and fingers spread, as if to better capture the new structure’s radiance.

The Veterans’ Glass City Skyway, the biggest transportation project in Ohio history, will open June 24, just three weeks before the new Tacoma Narrows bridge opens July 15.

In some ways, Toledo’s bridge-building experience has been similar to Tacoma’s. The two cities are about the same size, both have strong blue-collar roots and large ports, and both have spent the past five years dealing with a massive construction project.

But in more ways, the projects have been strikingly different, and, as the openings approach, residents of the two cities have very different attitudes toward their new bridge.

The differences underscore the importance of context in urban construction projects: regional economies, geography and group dynamics.

Toledo’s bridge has been a people’s project from the beginning. It was intended to be not only a river crossing but also a civic symbol, a shining beacon that would help the city regain economic prosperity.

The fact that, in many ways, construction in Toledo was a disaster, with five workers killed and the general contractor, Fru-Con Construction, finishing an estimated $130 million in the red, has done nothing to diminish the sense of community pride.

In Tacoma, where construction went remarkably smoothly, people appreciate the new bridge as an engineering marvel, but few regard it as a symbol of anything – except possibly government unfairness in mandating tolls.

For most, the hope vested in the Tacoma bridge is no more grandiose than that daily traffic jams will be cleared up.


On board the Detroit Princess, Rob Ludeman climbs to the third deck and heads toward the stern, looking for a place where he can talk without having to shout over the noise of the crowd.

The chartered boat is crammed with local dignitaries, union officials, politicians and bridge workers, all of whom shelled out $100 to attend the May 24 gala celebration: “Some Enlightened Evening.”

“This bridge is something that will be the highlight of the city for years to come,” Ludeman said. “It will be a landmark. I think people will come here because of this bridge.”

Ludeman, president of the Toledo City Council and a local Realtor, has been involved for eight years in a public task force that helped guide the bridge’s design and construction. The bridge will function as a visual icon for Toledo, he said, a magnet for a downtown area hit by hard times.

“More people are living downtown now,” he said. “My hope would be property values will start going up.”

Tacoma’s efforts to start its economic engine caught hold in the late 1990s. After decades of struggle, it now is a city on the move. Downtown Tacoma is thriving, revitalized by a university and museums.

Toledo is still stalled, desperately yanking the economic starter cord.

Its population has dropped steadily for 35 years, declining from 383,818 in 1970 to an estimated 286,000 last year. Big manufacturers moved elsewhere. The portion of the population living below the poverty line went from 17.9 percent in 1999 to 23.4 percent in 2005, according to a Brookings Institution study. Opinion pieces in local newspapers lament a Toledo “brain drain.”

Cavernous old brick buildings, most of them empty, tower over the downtown streets. In residential areas along the river, block after block of once grand homes have fallen into disrepair, with windows boarded up and yards gone to weeds and strewn with trash.

Toldeo tried to kick-start its economy by building a new waterfront park, a convention center and several heavily subsidized commercial developments. So far, however, those efforts have led nowhere.

At 5:45 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, downtown Toledo was nearly deserted. Not a single boat was moored at a new civic dock on the Maumee River. Not one person was walking on a new riverfront promenade. It was time for a rush hour, but so few cars were on the streets that traffic lights seemed useless annoyances.

“It just hasn’t jelled,” said Jeff Baker, regarding Toledo’s efforts to revitalize.

Baker, a large man with pop-bottle glasses, is an engineer who, earlier in his career, worked for the city on many renewal projects. He left that job to become the Ohio Department of Transportation’s construction manager on the bridge project.

Urban renewal “isn’t a simple, quick process,” Baker said. “All you can do is build until you get a critical mass.”

On the wall of Murphy’s Place, a restaurant and jazz club in the heart of downtown Toledo, a sign says “Capacity 126,” but at dinner time on a recent weekday there were four people in the place – two couples engrossed in private conversations on opposite sides of the room.

The restaurant was library quiet. When the bar phone rang, both couples looked up, startled.

Clifford Murphy, the owner of Murphy’s Place and a nationally recognized bass player, now 75, showed up at 8 p.m. for the evening show with his trio. Murphy grew up in Toledo, a few doors down from the revered pianist Art Tatum.

“There used to be a lot of jazz in Toledo,” Murphy said. “Now there’s a couple of places call themselves jazz, but they play more blues.”

Murphy’s club gets a decent crowd when the new convention center across the street has a group in town, he said, but most nights are like this. He has run a jazz club in Toledo since 1991, and he’s used to the lack of business.

He shrugs.

“That’s downtown Toledo,” he said.


“We’re a bit of a Rust Belt town,” said Mike Gramza, the overall director of the bridge project for the state Transportation Department.

“From the very beginning of the project, Toledo made it clear that, for economic reasons, they wanted an identifiable signature bridge that would lead it into the 21st century.”

As in Tacoma, the new bridge was to replace a 50-year-old bridge overwhelmed by traffic. In Toledo’s case, it was the four-lane Craig Memorial Bridge on Interstate 280, one of a few drawbridges on the interstate highway system and a national priority for replacement.

In 1988, six public agencies joined forces in planning the new bridge. All agreed the people should have a powerful voice in deciding what the span was going to look like.

John Crandall, special projects engineer for Ohio’s Lucas County, remembers taking part in those earliest gatherings.

“It was different for me,” Crandall said, “because, as an engineer, I was used to wanting the cheapest and most practical solution. In this case, we said, ‘We want a signature bridge.’”

In spring 2000, more than 1,000 Toledoans took part in workshops to decide the main design elements of the bridge. In the course of planning and construction, various committees held 42 public meetings. Attendance ranged from 50 to 200.

Meanwhile, in Tacoma, people were excited, too – not about design issues but about the fact that they would have to repay $800 million in construction costs with tolls. That discussion filled meeting agendas, leaving little time for much else.

When it became clear that fighting the tolls was a lost cause, public participation dropped way off. At update meetings called during construction by the state Department of Transportation, 30 people constituted an unusually large turnout. More often, 10 or fewer showed up. State employees running the meetings often outnumbered residents.


Tolls were suggested in Toledo, too, but a compelling case was made against them, Crandall said.

The Maumee River crossing is the main route around Lake Erie from Detroit. About 50 percent of the traffic is local, Crandall said; the rest is merely passing through.

In Ohio’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Bob Taft took a strong stand against tolls, agreeing with Toledoans that they shouldn’t have to pay for a nationally important interstate crossing. As a result, none of the project’s total cost – close to $500 million – came from tolls. About 80 percent of the money came from the federal government, Crandall said; the rest came from state gas taxes.

Tacoma’s bridge is on a state highway and received no federal funds. If federal funds had been involved, the contractor would have been required to buy American steel, significantly raising the cost of the project.

At the initial public meetings, Toledoans had their choice of four bridge designs: a concrete box girder bridge, a steel truss bridge, a suspension bridge and a cable-stayed bridge.

The cable-stayed design, with a 400-foot-tall center pylon and a fanlike array of cables, was the clear favorite. The pylon would be lighted and would incorporate glass, symbolizing Toledo’s history of glass manufacturing – notably windows, bottles and windshields.

“This structure was compelling to the public,” said Andrea Voogd, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. “There was no question. Nothing was even a close second.”

The choice was based on economics as well as aesthetics, Voogd said.

Local labor unions had a strong presence at the meetings and insisted that as much bridge construction money as possible stay in the community. The cable-stayed design would have a concrete deck, which could be precast in sections nearby and trucked to the site.

“One of the things they thought was really important was keeping jobs here,” Baker said. “That was one of the real driving forces for going with a concrete bridge. Everything is local. The aggregate is local, the labor is local.”

As it turned out, Baker said, about $80 of every $100 spent on the bridge went straight into the local economy.

Except for a few specialized parts – some stainless steel connectors and particularly high-strength stressing wire – all of the 1.8 million pounds of steel used in the Toledo bridge was American made.

In Tacoma, the bridge was an international effort, with Japanese and Korean companies playing critical roles. Most of the steel used in the bridge came from Japan. The mile-long steel deck was assembled at a Samsung shipyard on an island off South Korea.

In Toledo, the people’s role in design extended down to the fine details – elements such as the pattern used in concrete sound walls (they chose a lace pattern, to symbolize a curtain opening on the 21st century) and the type of railing installed along the bridge deck (they chose a “split rail” design, the least dense allowed by federal standards, so drivers’ views up and down the Maumee River wouldn’t be blocked).

“They didn’t want to feel like they were in a tunnel, 135 feet in the air,” Voogd explained.

In Tacoma, a Bechtel-Kiewit partnership was paid a flat fee on a “design/build” contract, meaning design details continued to be worked out even as the bridge was being built. That left no room for public choice.

Even the name of the Toledo bridge was a result of a public process. A call for suggestions drew more than 1,000 responses. In a classic democratic compromise, the two favorites: “Veterans’ Memorial Bridge” and “Glass City Skyway,” were combined for the final name: “The Veterans’ Glass City Skyway.”

The Tacoma bridge so far does not have a name other than “the new Tacoma Narrows bridge.”


While the Toledo bridge was being built, more than 15,000 people toured the construction site.

In Tacoma, no public tours were offered. Spectators instead were directed to a waterfront park a mile south of the construction site, where they could watch through binoculars.

“There are people living in $50,000 houses in this neighborhood who honestly think that they built this bridge,” Voogd said, driving through a section of East Toledo called Birmingham, where the bridge touches down.

“This is their bridge. They own it. Everybody feels like they own this thing.”

Jim Beard counts himself among the bridge fans. Beard is the merchandising manager at Tony Packo’s, the Toledo restaurant made famous on the television show “M*A*S*H” when it was mentioned by the homesick medical corpsman Max Klinger, played by Toledo’s Jamie Farr.

“I love the bridge,” Beard said. “It’s the largest, most extensive construction of its kind in Ohio history. To be only, how many feet, from that is really something. We literally watched it being built.”

Tony Packo, a Hungarian factory worker, started the restaurant during the Great Depression when 10-cent hot dogs were too expensive. Packo cut them in half, covered them with chili and sold them for a nickel.

Beard sells hats, T-shirts and Packo’s special hot pickles in a gift shop in a back corner of the restaurant.

Even though a maze of detours and confusing signs hurt business during the years of bridge construction, Beard remains enthusiastic.

“When it opens, I think it will be great,” he said. “This area might really explode with commercial ventures.”


Toledo’s pride in its bridge survived one of the worst construction disasters in recent U.S. history. On Feb. 16, 2004, a 900-ton truss crane used to hold concrete bridge segments collapsed, killing four men and seriously injuring four others.

Then, just two months ago, a carpenter was killed when a construction platform hanging from the side of the deck came loose and dropped 82 feet to the ground.

Tacoma’s project had no fatalities and few serious injuries.

“Time stopped in this city when the accidents happened,” said Lindsay Webb, a Toledo woman running for a spot on the City Council.

Toledo is a small town, Webb said. The workers and their families were people many knew, either personally or through friends.

“It really was a shock to the community to lose those people,” she said.

Fru-Con was found to be negligent and was forced to pay $280,000 in fines and more than $11 million in settlements to the victims’ families. City and county prosecutors still are considering felony charges against the company.

The deaths increased Toledo’s emotional attachment to the bridge. The five men who died tend to be regarded not as victims of possible corporate negligence, but as heroes who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.

On the Detroit Princess, party-goers quietly filed past a model of a workers’ memorial that will be installed near the bridge. Proceeds from the $100 tickets to the gala will help pay for the artwork.

On the night of the gala, organizers called for a moment of silence to honor the dead. But the action revved up again quickly after.

The new bridge is only the beginning, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner excitedly told the crowd.

“Let us truly become one of the great cities of the world,” he said. “If we work together, that can happen.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693


The new bridges opening this summer in Tacoma and Toledo, Ohio, both cost millions, and each is an engineering marvel. Beyond that, they couldn’t be more different.


Tacoma: $800 million in bonds issued by Washington state will be repaid by tolls.

Toledo: Combination of state and federal transportation funds will cover nearly $500 million total cost of bridge and approaches. No tolls.


Tacoma: Mile-long suspension bridge with 2,800-foot-long main span. Built in deep, tidal water parallel to existing suspension bridge.

Toledo: Cable-stayed bridge with 400-foot-tall pylon, first to use glass as integral design element. LED lighting incorporated into design.


Tacoma: Mostly Japanese steel. Steel deck fabricated in South Korea. Wire and cables manufactured in South Korea, China and England.

Toledo: Almost entirely American-made steel. Deck sections cast at local concrete plant using local labor.


Tacoma: No deaths and only three serious injuries.

Toledo: Five deaths and heavy state fines. Possibility of felony charges against general contractor Fru-Con.


Tacoma: No budget for decorative lights. Residents interested in lights gather late in process and struggle to raise $4 million needed to light span. The state has promised $1.5 million.

Toledo: Decorative lights part of original design and included in construction budget. 16 million-color palette available on innovative LED system.


Tacoma: Outrage over tolls resulted in lawsuits. Almost no public input on design. Bridge so far unnamed. Public tours not available during construction.

Toledo: Hundreds attended planning meetings. About 15,000 toured construction site. Public chose designs and named bridge. Strong sense of civic ownership.

Rob Carson, The News Tribune

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