High-wire acts don’t happen often on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, but when they do, a crack crew gives motorists a real show—even if they can’t be seen.
Expect the unexpected.
It’s the only sure thing Vinnie Manetti can anticipate at work on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. So when the call came one afternoon that a mail truck had snapped in half between two eastbound lanes, he dispatched an emergency crew to the site—stat—to warn of an emergency lane closure.
Manetti’s mission: protect the motoring public and his workers as they removed the rig and restored the safe, efficient flow of traffic.
But no incident at the bridge is routine. Two lanes, where concrete had just been poured, were closed, the rig’s broken axle made towing a problem, and the battered sides of the trailer seemed ready to collapse and spill loads of mail onto the one open lane.
Manetti went to work. He determined the vehicle wouldn’t be towed. It could be driven carefully to the bottom without causing damage to the bridge. But the truck still needed unloading. Federal officials insisted that civilians, like the bridge’s emergency crew, couldn’t touch the mail. With traffic backing up on the bridge, there was no time to squabble.
The bridge police intervened, then 10 men from the traffic and electrical crews unloaded palettes and bundles of magazines. The workers labored three-and-a half hours to remove the rig. Some passing motorists clapped. Others were not so appreciative.
Toll collectors and bridge police stand round the clock as the most visible personnel at the twin spans. But the maintenance north group also works 24-seven to keep 100,000 tons of structural steel in the towering roadways in good working condition—and to respond to emergencies. Their role is as integral to the bridges as the anchorages that support them.
“I’ve been in the maintenance and engineering field for about 30 years,” says John Jones, director of maintenance and engineering at the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which owns and operates the bridges. “I’ve been in 14 different organizations, and I have a pretty good feel for talent and what it takes to get things done. And I can tell you that the folks in this organization are without a doubt some of the best maintainers I have had the pleasure of serving with. The breadth and depth of knowledge that these men and women have is just awesome, and so many times things get done without having to say a whole lot because they know what to do. They know how to react to situations. They know how to take care of stuff.”
Eight maintenance crews focus on the bridges, the centerpiece of the Delaware River and Bay Authority’s many holdings, which include the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and several airports. Their jobs encompass more than the twin spans. Eighteen overpasses, 60 miles of interstate highway and 13 interchange ramps must be kept free of snow, ice, potholes, trash and accidents.
Those ramps and roads must look clean and well lit while more than 80,000 vehicles cross the bridges each day. More than 120 miles of guard railing and 10 miles of fencing clamor for attention. Grass needs cutting and curbs and drainpipes require maintenance, too. Toll collectors expect booths with comfortable temperatures. Throw in constant training, which can be tough to make time for when keeping the motoring public safe.
The bridges are a multi-million-dollar public asset, Jones says. Maintenance and engineering uses a preventative program to extend the life of those investments and avoid unexpected or catastrophic breakdowns. Prevention is cost effective, instills public trust and promotes safety. That means maintenance must be planned in a way that is convenient for and barely noticeable by the public, Jones says.
The Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007 unnerved the nation. The twin spans, like many bridges, were scrutinized. A recent report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation said that one out of every four bridges in use in the United States is structurally deficient. The DRBA takes preventative measures to maintain the bridge.
“Each year our engineering department, along with independent structural engineers, does an eight to 10-week analysis to identify areas of need,” says DRBA spokesman Jim Salmon. In August 2007 the bridge was rated in good condition, with no structural deficiencies. “I drive the bridge every day,” says Salmon. “And I feel safe doing it.”
Tasks such as inspection, painting, pothole repair and maintenance of treadles in toll lanes require several crews to interact. Greg Seiverd and his road crew of five and Manetti’s traffic crew have returned repeatedly after their 3 p.m. quitting time to mend a section of guardrail or fencing that’s been grabbed by a passing vehicle and flung aside like a piece of paper.
But the maintenance crew performs snow and ice removal best. “We all become one maintenance in a snowstorm—the priority,” says John “Flip” DeFilippis, HVAC supervisor for maintenance north. “When I’m coming in to help out with the snow, I know when I’m coming to our property. These guys have been here all night doing this. You know what? We’ve got it made. All we have to do is touch up some areas and clean up a little bit of stuff. These guys, they got it. They kicked it in the butt. I mean, these guys are good, I’m telling you.”
The expression “my bridge” speaks to the sense of ownership felt by many in the DRBA family. The possession stems from a passion for their work and job satisfaction.
Hired two years ago, Kyle Johnston, 25, represents the next generation of bridge keepers. Though he can see the top of the spans from his New Jersey home 17 miles away, he never imagined working there.
Newcomers land on the structures crew —formerly known as the riggers—the guys who once walked the cables without safety equipment. From April to October, this group washes every nook and cranny of the bridges. Johnston plans on pursuing a four-year degree, a DRBA benefit, while rising through the ranks.
“I love this place,” he says. “Everybody I work with is professional. You see the end job, and that makes me feel good—providing a service to everyone around us.
“I’m responsible for it,” Johnston says. “If it was just a job I wouldn’t be happy coming here.”
Seiverd, a 17-year employee, and his crew do it all—concrete, brick and block work, asphalt, guardrail and fence repair. Some companies inhibit work pride, he says, but not the DRBA. The authority provides whatever equipment is needed to complete a job, and it’s all top-of-the-line. The staff appreciates the nice facility and works hard to maintain it.
“You can’t beat the environment or the camaraderie with the guys,” Seiverd says. “You are never going to get rich, but that’s understood. It’s a nice place to work, and I enjoy what I’m doing and have fun working. I have a good working relationship with my boss and coworkers.”
The group has become like a family, says Pete Thomas, a 27-year employee who oversees most maintenance crews. Eight-hour and sometimes 16-hour days have created friendships on and off the job, he says, and that creates a good work environment. They take care of each other off the clock as well. They’ve put roofs on each other’s homes, delivered fruit baskets in times of illness and death, and have been known to cast a fishing line or two together.
Though the maintenance budget has been cut by 20 percent, the crew conveys a can-do attitude and gets the work done. “They don’t want to hear, ‘We’re short’ or, ‘That guy’s off,’” Thomas says. “We figure out somehow to take care of it. We call another department, and we don’t always get the same response. ‘You’re on a waiting list. We’re a little short today.’ We don’t say that to anyone. That’s not in our vocabulary.”
DeFilippis’ job went from 40 hours Monday through Friday to 24-seven when he rose through the ranks five years ago.
“I’m always available,” he says. “I’ve never said, ‘You aren’t going to get me.’ I’m not married to it, but it’s a pride factor. I’ve got to be responsible ultimately.”
Bridge personnel have been criticized over the years, especially after the authority’s former executive director was convicted of mail fraud and tax evasion in 2005. The stench still lingers, and many struggle to let the criticism roll off their backs.
Joe Ewing, working supervisor of the electrical crew, says he and one of his men, sporting company shirts, stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts on their way to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for maintenance. A customer said, “There are those bridge workers. They don’t do nothing all day.”
“I take that personally,” Ewing says. “They don’t know me. They’ve already judged me.”
Nonetheless, many say going to work at the bridge is the best move they’ve made.
Rocky Costa would have taken any job 22 years ago, just to get his foot in the door for the security, pension and health benefits. Since then he has worked his way up from mechanic to chief mechanic to supervisor to, now, automotive service manager. As such, he oversees 13 workers who maintain more than 650 pieces of equipment before and after every use.
Costa purchases all vehicles and automotive equipment, and the man knows how to create a crew whose members care about each other. Every morning before their 7 a.m. clock in, the automotive guys gather for coffee. They reconvene for lunch, then join again at the end of the shift to put away gear. “Toolbox talk” occurs weekly for a discussion of safety issues, shop concerns, training and recognition of jobs well done. To eliminate resentment, Costa has made sure that everyone possesses the same skills, an I-know-what-you-know philosophy that levels the playing field and creates ownership.
So is it his bridge?
“Absolutely,” Costa says. “It doesn’t take long once you’re here and you’re established. By looking at the equipment, by looking at the buildings, by looking at the facilities, you want to be a part of it. The War Memorial, the place in itself—you want to be part of it because it’s clean and it’s a friendly environment. And it is. It’s our complex, it’s our bridge, our trucks. Everybody has a piece of it ”