Crane and Hoist Canada

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Gordie Howe International Bridge scores big with cranes

Cranes steal the show as MVPs of the massive, cross-border bridge project

July 8, 2024  By Saul Chernos

(Photo credit: Gordie Howe International Bridge)

Crane operator Kelly Moran is soaring with eagles, enjoying spectacular views and putting the finishing touches to one of two 220-metre towers gracing each end of the Windsor-Detroit border’s new Gordie Howe International Bridge.

The six-lane cable-stayed bridge, currently pegged at $6.4 billion, is named after the Detroit Red Wings’ hockey superstar Gordie Howe. Just like the prolific goal scorer needed teammates to feed him the puck, work crews have used an array of cranes to build the new link between Interstate 75 in Michigan and Highway 401 in Ontario.

Bridge megaprojects almost always demand specialized hoisting, and this was the case when the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA) and its private-sector consortium partner, Bridging North America (composed of ACS Infrastructure, Fluor and Aecon), broke ground in 2018.

WDBA’s chief relations officer Heather Grondin says crews have used 440-ton Manitowoc 16000 lattice-boom crawlers, 200-ton Link-Belt LS 248 crawlers, and 300-ton Manitowoc 2250 lattice-boom service cranes to hoist concrete, rebar and other materials for the new bridge as well as for structures at the points of entry, noise walls, on-off ramps and pedestrian and road crossings over the I-75.

(Photo credit: Gordie Howe International Bridge)

Crews also used 300-ton Manitowoc MLC300 crawlers equipped with Variable Position Counterweight (VPC-MAX) systems to boost hoisting capacity for building the two bridge decks, and those same cranes are now working from each deck to build-out the main span to connect the structure across the Detroit River.

“The cranes are used to erect steel-edge girders, steel floor beams, steel redundancy girders, steel soffit and concrete precast panels as part of each segment of the deck,” Grondin says, noting that the steel pieces weigh up to 140,000 lbs, and the precast concrete panels up to 80,000 lbs.

Each crawler sits on carefully engineered mats. When each segment is completed, a second mat is placed in front of the crane to allow it to move forward in order to install the next segment, Grondin says.

While barges are sometimes brought in for complex bridge projects, none have seen duty on the Gordie Howe bridge. Instead, the limelight has been seized by Comansa 21LC1050 tower cranes helping erect the towers on each side of the river.

Both towers are 722 feet in height, and while the tower on the Michigan side is overshadowed by taller buildings in Detroit, Windsor’s tower has established itself as that city’s tallest structure.

From 761 feet in the air, crane operator Kelly Moran can see Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie bookending each end of the horizon, along with his fair share of high-flying bald eagles. (Photo: Kelly Moran)

Kelly Moran is among a handful of lucky operators who have run the 21LC1050 — in his case on the Canadian side — so he’s had a gander at what can be seen from his cab, 761 feet in the air.

While Moran has spotted a variety of wildlife, it’s bald eagles, nesting in poplar trees less than a quarter-kilometre away at Brighton Beach, that stand out: “Some are immature and haven’t developed the white head yet,” he says when pressed for ornithological details. “They’re more a dark brown.”

The eagles keep their distance, but a few daring ospreys have landed on Moran’s crane. “They’ll actually take fish or other small birds up there and spread them apart, eat them, then leave the remains for us to clean up.”

On a clear day, Moran can see the north shore of Lake St. Clair and, to the south, Lake Erie: “I can watch ships traverse the entire Detroit River. It’s pretty cool!”

Of course, any sights are a backdrop to the job at hand — lifting everything from the bridge’s 216 stay cables to rebar, formwork and anchor boxes. Moran, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, says his tower crane has a maximum hoisting capacity of 39,020 lbs at 196.9 feet (42,920 lbs in Power Lift mode), increasing to 110,230 lbs at 79.1 feet or less. Other specs include a maximum hook height of 760 feet and a maximum radius of 196.9 feet when all 42 tower sections are installed.

With tower crane activities now nearing completion, Moran describes manoeuvres as relatively straightforward, though fitting 60,000-pound struts snugly into place took particular care and precision. “The anchor boxes ran close to 100,000 pounds and were probably the heaviest lift,” he says.

The heaviest lifts were completed at night when foot traffic below is negligible. “We separated the crews so we could do the high work at night and the low work on the bridge deck during the day,” Moran says, adding that he devised a plan to place battery-powered lamps on the ends of struts for crews to see how they were reacting. When operators couldn’t easily see loads, they relied on radio communication and assistance from signalers.

Reaching the necessary heights demanded by this project required a process known as ‘jumping the crane.’ (Photo credit: Gordie Howe International Bridge)

One feature of the 21LC1050 is that its height can be increased through a process known as jumping the crane.

“Most cranes I’ve run into [until] this point were freestanding, and you build the structure underneath, but this crane grew with the structure,” Moran said. He described an intricate process where crane sections are hoisted and carefully placed inside layers of surrounding structural support, which are also added to incrementally.

“It’s one of the most sensitive operations carried out on-site,” Moran says. “It gets a lot of attention from managers, superintendents and safety, and it shuts down the entire site until we complete the operation.”

Moran has been operating for more than 15 years, and this was his first time jumping a crane. Comansa supplied specialist technicians to assist, but crews quickly learned to perform on their own. “You study your manuals very carefully, but there’s no substitute for practical experience,” he says.

When construction ends, crews will remove the tower crane by reversing the jump process and dismantling the machine one segment at a time. “Taking the crane down can actually be a little trickier than putting it up,” Moran says, describing an approach that’s tightly controlled and balanced to avoid point loading.

With proponents expecting to open the bridge to traffic in the fall of 2025, all eyes are on its long-term value.

“It’s not every day that our members get to work on a project as important to the economy of two nations as is the Gordie Howe International Bridge,” says IUOE Local 793’s business manager, Mike Gallagher. “It’s an incredible landmark with a striking design that millions of people will use to travel across for many years to come.”

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