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Building Bridges: Constructing In Turbulent Times

The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the D.C. construction industry has been operating at full throttle to provide the community with safe and convenient methods of transportation. In 2020, as people brought their work home and business operations across D.C. slowed or shut down, construction crews building the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge worked to adjust schedules and enact safety protocols to ensure the project could still move forward. 

While there is still some work left to enhance the amenities and aesthetic features, the structural component of the bridge has been open to visitors since September 2021, approximately one month before the original opening date.

This project, which has been years in the making, is the D.C. Department of Transportation’s largest building project to date. The process involved replacing the old Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge with a new bridge and traffic ovals on both sides of the Anacostia River. 

Adam Hollon, project manager of South Capitol Bridgebuilders, the contracting company for the project, said that having a more structurally sound bridge was a long time coming for D.C., which needed the upgrade to sustain the throngs of cars, bicycles and people who make their way over the bridge every day.

“If you've ever had a chance to drive over the previous bridge, you would realize that the existing infrastructure was literally deteriorating and obsolete,” Hollon said. “Knowing that the existing structure was deteriorating, it was time for the existing bridge to come down and for a new one to be put up. This would help unify the community.”

Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters Business Representative Kunta Bedney said that this project was the result of the combined efforts of union carpenters and D.C. locals. He said D.C. residents have been requesting better infrastructure and that the new bridge would provide added benefits to commuters as well as the overall D.C. economy.

“D.C. needs more investments like this to create more jobs that pay well to make the daily lives of residents better,” Bedney said.

Just because this project would provide crucial benefits to the community, however, doesn’t mean construction crews were allowed to overlook issues caused by Covid-19. Hollon said pandemic protocols that were put in place on the construction site included wearing masks on the job, placing limits on the number of crew members on-site at one time and sanitizing equipment that would be passed from person to person. 

Bedney added that it was a priority for the Carpenters’ Union to put precautions in place that would allow workers to do their jobs efficiently and safely. He said that in response to the pandemic, the EASRCC launched an online Covid-Preparedness Qualification course that would be implemented moving forward to help educate workers on taking proper safety precautions on-site.

Although the construction methods, tools and resources were similar to those being used within a typical construction project, according to Hollon, the significant and at times challenging aspect of this project was in the scheduling. To stay on track while following Covid protocols, the contractors had to work in multiple shifts.

One benefit, Hollon said, was having a project labor agreement, which was developed as a collaboration between the Carpenters’ Union, the Department of Transportation and the Baltimore-DC Building Trades. Within this project, the PLA provided on-site job training for local and nonunion residents, who could use their skills and expand their knowledge in either the design and engineering, trade or contractor staff sectors. 

“The project labor agreement provided a foundation on which the contractor, the owner and the employees could ensure that the work started quickly and moved forward smoothly in an organized manner,” Hollon said. “The agreement focused on the residents here in the area, so that they can continue to work and build their community.”

Bedney said the bridge structure was finished earlier than planned thanks to the efforts of the local carpenters, who stayed on the same page of working together safely and sticking to the timeline.

“Finding local workers who want to learn and complete the job safely, productively and on time has been a priority for us,” Bedney said. “The carpenters just wanted the project to be a success and it showed through their dedication.”

The Douglass bridge is complete and open for use, Hollon said, and in the coming months, the team will be working on traffic ovals that provide space for people to walk along, as well as areas that are suitable for sitting and congregating in groups, among other elements of convenience.

The full project is on track to be completed by spring 2022.

This article was produced in collaboration between Carpenter Contractor Trust and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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