Bay Bridge Borings

U.S. Highway 331 and the Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge are the only routes connecting northern and southern portions of Walton County, Florida.  The roadway was seriously over traveled and 274% above its capacity level in the evening.  With a maximum service volume of 690 vehicles per hour, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) measured a trip count of 770 vehicles per hour in 2005.  Multiple accidents each year proved the excessive number of vehicles on U.S. 331 posed a daily threat to commuters.

Perhaps even more pressing, U.S. 331 is the sole evacuation route out of south Walton during hurricanes.  Drivers previously faced a 30-hour evacuation time.  When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in 2005, widespread impacts revealed how unprepared the state of Florida was for a natural disaster of this magnitude.  In response, FDOT began addressing the state’s highway infrastructure issues and expanding roadways to ensure safety, not only for day-to-day travelers, but also hurricane evacuees.

In 2013, FDOT awarded Skanska USA Civil Southeast a $118.5 million design/build contract to construct an additional two-lane bridge on U.S. 331 (State Road 83) over Choctawhatchee Bay.  Madrid Engineering Group, Inc. (MEG) – based in Bartow, Florida, with a field office in Panama City – was hired as a geotechnical subcontractor to drill and conduct laboratory testing to support design and construction of the bridge expansion.

About Madrid Engineering Group:  MEG has been providing drilling services to clients for over 20 years.  The company has been tested to the limit on some of the most challenging drilling jobs in Florida.  To date, MEG has successfully completed over 7000 projects, gaining experience and respect along the way to become one of the elite geotechnical engineering firms in the Sunshine State.

MEG has worked with FDOT and other government agencies to expand services throughout Florida, taking on larger, more challenging drilling projects.  As a rock coring and deep boring specialist, MEG is committed to high-quality drilling, and assigns the most qualified drilling professionals to each specific task to ensure every job is performed with the utmost integrity and professionalism.

The Man Behind the Drilling: WWDR was fortunate to catch James Spoon at MEG”s Panama City office.  He’s the geotechnical operations manager for MEG who led drilling on the Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge project.  He’s passionate about what he does, and was happy to share details about drilling for the Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge project, as well as some personal insights from his experience, and advice on what it takes to succeed in the industry.

Spoon stressed the importance of proper training for drilling professionals.  Young operators in particular need an incentive to stay in the industry.  They need to be appreciated and paid a decent wage.  He said there’s only so much a person can learn in class; they need mentors most of all to help develop their talents.

Science, history and math were among Spoon’s favorite school subjects.  When he saw a core sample for the first time, he was “like a kid in a candy store…They’ve been in the ground millions of years – mussels, oysters, and clams are still whole, but now they are limestone too…”.

A man named Willie Patterson is Spoon’s mentor to this day.  Patterson took Spoon under his wing for over 13 years, teaching him drilling “old school style” on a 1939 Faling 1500.

Spoon expressed gratitude to Mr. Patterson for never giving up on him.  He said when other tell you not to waste your time on someone you believe in, don’t listen.  If you invest the time it takes to truly teach someone, it could be worth it.  “Look for that diamond in the rough,” said Spoon.  Mr. Patterson called him a diamond in the rough, and Spoon himself is currently polishing a couple of potential diamonds.

For those interested in a drilling career, he suggests giving it a try for at least one month.  Most importantly, LISTEN to seasoned drilling professionals as you can learn the trade because they’re your best source of knowledge.  “You can learn more in the field with a seasoned driller than you can in any class,” Spoon mentioned.  Another piece of advice he offered to those entering the workforce is to strive to be the best and always do the best job you can.

The Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge Project:

An aggressive schedule, as well as Florida’s unpredictable weather and unusual subsurface materials were just a few of the obstacles the company was able to overcome during this bridge construction project.  Drilling in Florida is challenging enough, but drilling beneath the Choctawhatchee Bay came with its own issues.  The Bay is fed primarily by the freshwater of the Choctawhatchee River which extends well into Alabama, but it is also fed seawater from the Gulf of Mexico, causing continually fluctuating salinity levels.

The original bridge was designed with three causeways built with organic materials.  Over the years, these causeways had settled and needed to be stabilized for the new bridge.  The engineers decided soil mixing with portland cement and bentonite could minimize settlement and create a firmer foundation.

During the sampling process, the team encountered dense layers of soft clays and organics, or muck as Spoon described it, reaching up to 50 feet in some areas, which made it difficult to obtain clean samples.  To solve this issue, they took a sample, then advanced the casing in 5-foot intervals until they hit more solid materials.  Most of the bore depths were around 160 feet below the muck with 140 feet of surface casing.

Completing this job took a dedicated team of engineers, drilling professionals, and people willing to solve problems quickly and efficiently.  With new samples arriving daily, the Bartow office conducted laboratory testing seven days a week.  Using two drill rigs, sometimes working night and day in two shifts, the company was able to complete the geotechnical drilling and sampling for this design/build project two months ahead of schedule, despite numerous weather-related delays.

The widening of U.S. 331 and the Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge will provide a safer transportation corridor between north and south Walton County, along with a reliable way out in the event of a hurricane.  The positive effects of this expansion are not confined to the state of Florida, as U.S. 331 links Alabama and Florida from Interstate 65, as well as Interstate 85 and Interstate 10 from Montgomery, Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico.

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