Safe Crossings
Safe Crossings
Safe Crossings
5 minute read

Harrington & Cortelyou Inc. has a long history of building bridges that span the country. Joining Burns & McDonnell provides the firm an opportunity to continue that tradition and deliver design-build projects for transportation departments.

Not long after Clinton S. Burns and Robert E. McDonnell opened the doors to their consulting engineering office in 1898, another pair of Kansas City , Mo., engineers had an idea for a new approach to lift bridge design.

One of those engineers — John Lyle Harrington — had already established a reputation as an innovative bridge designer. The patent his firm received in 1909 for a span drive vertical lift bridge, however, put him and his colleagues on the map, leading to commissions for 24 bridges, including a railroad bridge that connected North Kansas City, Mo., to the city’s downtown.

By 1928, Harrington teamed up with another engineer — Frank M. Cortelyou Sr. — to form Harrington & Cortelyou Inc. Today, their mark can be found on bridges from coast to coast — from the Piscataqua River Bridge that connects Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine, to the historic Colorado Street concrete arch bridge spanning the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, Calif.

When the assets of Harrington & Cortelyou were acquired by Burns & McDonnell in July 2010, it had planned, designed, inspected and played a role in the construction or renovation of thousands of bridges, roadways and other transportation projects.

Bridges on the Brink?

Building Burns & McDonnell’s bridge portfolio is especially important today, according to Burns & McDonnell Associate Vice President Ben Biller, who leads the firm’s transportation practice.

“The public has taken bridges for granted for a long time,” Biller says. “For many, the catastrophic collapse of the Interstate 35 West Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 was a wake-up call. But the truth is, that failure was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Bridges are typically built to last 50 years, explains Kevin Eisenbeis, managing principal for Harrington & Cortelyou. “Here in the U.S., the average bridge is now 43 years old.” In fact, more than one in four of the nation’s 600,000 bridges is categorized as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to U.S. Department of Transportation research.

“That doesn’t mean that one-fourth of the nation’s bridges are potentially unsafe,” Eisenbeis says. “Most bridges fail slowly, in ways that give people advance warnings of danger. That’s why you see many now that must restrict traffic by posting speed and weight limits.”

The demands on the nation’s bridges are growing, even as the structures themselves are aging. Consider that the Brooklyn Bridge opened to horse-and-buggy traffic in 1883. Now it carries more than 144,000 vehicles a day.

Over the past 20 years alone, truck mileage nationwide has almost doubled, and the weight they carry has grown, too. Not all bridges have kept pace. “Those are some of the reasons the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s bridges a grade of C on its 2009 Infrastructure Report Card,” Biller says. “It’s also why we expect to see more new and rehabilitated bridges in our nation’s future.”

Raising the Grade

Structural failure isn’t the only thing that comes to mind when designers hear the words “bridge safety,” Eisenbeis adds.

“Anyone who has ever been on a narrow, two-lane bridge understands the fear that some of these older structures can create,” he says.

A case in point: the Route 19 Missouri River Bridge in Hermann, Mo. At 55 feet wide, the $33 million bridge is nearly three times the width of the two-lane, 1930s-vintage bridge it replaced. In addition to wider lanes and shoulders, Harrington & Cortelyou's design included an 8-foot bike and pedestrian lane connecting Missouri's Katy Trail to downtown Hermann.

 "User safety is a primary consideration in every bridge design," Eisenbeis says. "On a major river crossing like this, however, there are other safety issues to consider as well. These structures must be designed to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as human-caused accidents, like a barge ramming a pier."

The complexity of bridge engineering is made even more complex today by the challenges designers and builders face in meeting demands for ever-larger spans and applying new technologies, while working to lower costs and speed construction.

The new bridge over the Osage River at Tuscumbia, Mo., is a good example. The first bridge in the country to be built with stimulus finds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it has received considerable national attention.

"It is great to have an experienced design firm like H&C to help deliver the project as quickly as it has been done," says Roger Schwartze, Missouri Department of Transportation district engineer. "It is a big improvement, and one that will last for the people in that area for many years to come."

At the Port of Corpus Christi, Texas, meanwhile, Harrington & Cortelyou's work goes back to the 1950s, when it first designed a vertical lift bridge for what today is the nation's sixth largest port.

Since 1989, Harrington & Cortelyou has conducted annual inspections of the vertical lift bridge there. The firm has designed and managed construction of upgrades to the lift span loadings to accommodate increases in the railway and highway traffic carried across the Tule Lake Ship Channel.

"They know our bridges better than anyone," says David Michaelsen, PE, the port authority's chief engineer. "We look to them on any bridge issues or maintenance needs that come up."

The Texas Department of Transportation is now in the early stages of planning a new harbor bridge at the channel entrance. "Ships continue to grow in size," Eisenbeis says, "and many cannot fit under the existing bridge here or in many ports. The Port of Corpus Christi has asked us to study bridges and shippers around the world to help ensure that their port's next structure will be large enough to serve vessels for the next 75 years."

Still Setting the Standard

Many Harrington & Cortelyou clients go back further than the Port of Corpus Christi. Some of the firm’s early bridges, in fact, remain in use, with their owners returning time and again for upgrades to the original structures. Eisenbeis recalls a recent case when he received a call from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation about a combination railway and highway bridge the firm designed in 1938. The more than half-mile-long double-decker structure carries vehicular traffic on its top level with trains below.

“In this case, our client was looking for mechanical and electrical updates for the lift span that is raised for water traffic,” he says. The electrical upgrades included a programmable operating system that would have been unimaginable to the original designers.

Of course, many things about today’s bridges might amaze the firm’s early bridge engineers, from the super-strength steel and communication technologies now available to the volume of traffic and design-build delivery. 

“Over the years, the transportation industry has made significant advancements with Harrington & Cortelyou often leading the way,” says Jim Foil, Burns & McDonnell senior vice president and general manager of the firm’s Infrastructure Group. “It’s great to have specialists on our transportation team that have stood the test of time as well as their bridges have.”

For more information, contact Kevin Eisenbeis, 816-421-8386.

Harrington & Cortelyou: At a Glance

Best known for its design of fixed and movable bridges, Harrington & Cortelyou has designed major highway, railway, roadway and pedestrian bridges around the country.


Fixed Railroad Bridge
Paducah and Louisville Railway Relocation at Kentucky Dam
Kentucky Lake, Ky.
Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could enlarge the locks governing Kentucky Dam, the railway and highway bridge that went over the dam had to be moved downstream over the Tennessee River. For its part of the massive project, Harrington & Cortelyou designed a 500-foot railroad truss span that would pass over the navigation channel, along with the truss span piers. To streamline installation, the truss span was erected off-site and floated into place on the Tennessee River.

Fixed Highway Bridge
Route 19 Missouri River Bridge
Hermann, Mo.
For the Missouri Department of Transportation, Harrington & Cortelyou designed an award-winning 2,244-foot bridge to replace the obsolete, narrow bridge over the Missouri River. The 460-foot navigation span on the main river unit is among the first generation of highway bridges to benefit from the improved strength and easier fabrication associated with the use of high-performance steel plate girders.

Movable Railway and Highway Bridge
Piscataqua River Bridge
Portsmouth, N.H., to Kittery, Maine
One of more than 40 movable bridges designed by Harrington & Cortelyou, the Piscataqua River Bridge is a 2,800-foot-long combination railway and highway bridge with both a 224-foot tower drive vertical lift span and an 85-foot retractable rail span. Because rail traffic has diminished, the rail girder approach span was modified to provide a separate navigation opening for small watercraft. Among many upgrades designed by Harrington & Cortelyou, this modified span lifts then retracts inside an adjacent truss span.



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